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Text messaging could help Obama's turnout

world Updated: Aug 20, 2008 12:17 IST
Ken Thomas
Highlight Story

When Barack Obama announces his choice for vice president, the real payoff may come during the next few months _ one text message at a time.

Obama's campaign plans to break the news of the Democratic candidate's vice presidential pick to people who have signed up to receive e-mails and text messages from the campaign. It should give Obama's team access to tens of thousands of cell phone numbers that could be used to mobilize voters under 30 on Election Day. "What Obama is creating is this army of individuals, these grass-roots activists, who are out there trying to change the world in 160 characters or less," said David All, a Republican strategist who specializes in technology.

Obama's electronic outreach is the most prominent example of a larger movement by members of Congress and political campaigns to present their message and connect with voters through text messaging on cell phones, social networks such as MySpace and Facebook, and the microblogging site Twitter.

In Congress, some Republicans turned to Twitter in their protest of the Democrats' energy policies on the House floor. When the House recessed in August, microphones on the floor were turned off, the TV feeds to C-SPAN, the cable television channel that broadcasts sessions of Congress, ceased and the lights dimmed, but the Blackberries worked.

"Our voices can't be shut down," Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan typed on his Twitter site during the Republican protest. Hoekstra said using Twitter during the protest "really opened up my eyes" to the site's potential _ the number of people following his postings grew from 10 to nearly 500 by the end of the day. His Republican colleague, John Culberson of Texas, uses Twitter a lot and has more than 3,000 followers.

Obama's campaign has used the Internet to boost fundraising, building upon former presidential candidate Howard Dean's Web strategy in 2004, but the campaign's use of text messaging has the potential to mobilize voters in a new way.

Obama's campaign has encouraged supporters to sign up for e-mails and text messages and sent text messages to voters on the days of key primary contests. The messages also helped encourage supporters to attend local events and tune into Obama television appearances. On the Web, Obama's Twitter site now has more than 60,000 followers, who receive updates from Obama's town hall meetings and links to his Web site.

Nick Shapiro, an Obama spokesman, declined to release the number of cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses the campaign has amassed. He said the text messaging has been "valuable because not everyone sits in front of a computer or a television."

Republican John McCain's campaign, meanwhile, has not highlighted text messages, concentrating on more traditional e-mail messages to supporters, outreach to bloggers, Web-based advertising and YouTube videos. McCain's recent "Celeb" ad, which compared Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, has received about 2 million hits on YouTube.

Brian Rogers, a McCain spokesman, said the campaign's Web strategy was aimed "at getting votes on Election Day and communicating the messages that we feel are important to our supporters."

All, a former communications director for Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, said he remains concerned that McCain's campaign and many Republicans are overlooking the potential of text messaging.

"Text messaging is really powerful. If I have a text message, I can forward that text message to over 100 people in my cell phone list," All said. "It's going to be read by every single person _ have you ever not read a text message?"

Allison Dale, a University of Michigan graduate student who has studied the impact of text messages on voting, said Obama's campaign was shrewd to give prospective voters a juicy piece of information _ the vice presidential pick _ in exchange for their cell phone number.

Cell phone numbers can't be obtained in a directory, she noted, and the Obama campaign should be able to collect tens of thousands of numbers this way. But she said it was unclear whether the database will be heavy with political junkies or people who would be inclined to vote under any circumstances.

"We're still sort of at the beginning of figuring out what you can do with the text messaging," Dale said.