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Thursday, 14 August 2008



SOMETIME between now and the convention, Barack Obama, just like the cool kid in study hall, will surreptitiously send a text message announcing his pick for vice president. The ploy may seem silly — the fad candidate adopts the latest tech fad — but it’s an important part of one of Mr. Obama’s most under-recognized campaign efforts.

The Web has certainly made it harder to roll out a surprise running mate. Four years ago, even as The New York Post reported incorrectly that Dick Gephardt would be John Kerry’s 2004 vice presidential pick, a message-board commenter on an aviation Web site broke the news that Mr. Kerry had actually chosen John Edwards. (In a hangar, the commenter had spotted decals with Mr. Edwards’s name being added to Mr. Kerry’s campaign plane.)

But announcing Mr. Obama’s running mate by text message has little to do with proclaiming the selection and everything to do with getting out the vote on Election Day in November. The move should add thousands — and more likely tens or hundreds of thousands — of cellphone numbers to what is already one of the most detailed political databases ever created.

A study conducted during the 2006 elections showed that text-message reminders helped increase turnout among new voters by four percentage points, at a cost of only $1.56 per vote — much cheaper than the $20 or $30 per vote that the offline work of door-to-door canvassing or phone banking costs.

For Mr. Obama, who is building his campaign around bringing in new young voters and registering minority voters, there’s no more effective outreach than a text message. Cellphones, which legally can’t be called by pollsters and can’t be reached by campaign “robo-calls,” are the most intimate form of communication technology today. Young voters of every race are more likely to use their cellphones and, in many cases, don’t even have landline service. (About one in three people between the ages of 18 and 29 doesn’t have a landline.)

The Obama campaign has been aggressively using text messaging since the earliest of this year’s primaries and caucuses. On the day of the Iowa caucuses, the campaign sent repeated messages and caucus tips to the cellphones of its Iowa supporters. In New Hampshire, Mr. Obama sent his supporters three text messages over the course of primary day to remind them to vote and to get their friends to vote. There, Mr. Obama won the 18-to-24-year-old bracket by nearly 40 points, the largest split of any age bracket.

These days, Mr. Obama texts when he has a new speech to promote, an important TV appearance or a major rally. If he’s going to be campaigning nearby, he’ll let you know. John McCain, by contrast, doesn’t seem interested or engaged in technology. David All, a 29-year-old Republican strategist, lamented last month that Mr. McCain’s campaign had never sent him a text message.

Around the world, text messaging has become the tool of those dissatisfied with the political status quo, as was first demonstrated in the Philippines in 2001 when protesters organized themselves via cellphone to overthrow President Joseph Estrada. They passed along a simple text message with the direction to rally at a specific Manila street: “Go 2 EDSA. Wear blck.”

In Spain in 2004, text messages helped topple José María Aznar’s government after the Madrid train bombings. Thousands of protestors, who rightly believed that Al Qaeda (and not the Basque separatists blamed by the government) was responsible for the attacks, forwarded the phrase “Who did it?” to spread word of anti-government rallies on the day before the spring elections.

More recently, in Myanmar last fall text messaging was seen as such a threat to the government that the service was turned off during the monk-led protests against the oppressive regime.

For American politics, the Web has proved itself to be a powerful money-raising device, but e-mails, blogs, YouTube videos and Facebook haven’t demonstrated an ability to get voters to the polls. The new technology that’s best at moving people reaches beyond the desktop.

This fall, Mr. Obama’s use of text messages could reinvent the get-out-the-vote machines used by American political campaigns just as his fund-raising from online donors upended the Clintons, who many thought controlled the most powerful Democratic money machine ever built.

On Nov. 4, the Democratic nominee will need more than dollars from small donors equipped with credit cards and Internet access. He’ll need a crowd — a big one. That’s why he wants your cellphone number.
Garrett M. Graff, an editor at Washingtonian magazine and a former Webmaster for Howard Dean, is the author of “The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web and the Race for the White House.”

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