The first text alert popped up just after 6 a.m. Tuesday urging Dan Lauer-Schumacher to head out and vote Republican. In the hours that followed, his phone buzzed again and again. By noon, the 35-year-old had fielded at least a dozen texts urging him to support GOP candidates in places like Kentucky and Virginia.
There were two problems with the deluge of messages. Lauer-Schumacher lives in Minneapolis, where there were no candidates on the ballot. And he considers himself a Democrat.
“You can only block so many numbers for free,” he said. “I just gave up.”
A year out from the 2020 general election, smartphones across the country are lighting up with political texts as everyone from presidential candidates to grassroots organizers capitalize on an increasingly popular — and effective — form of voter outreach. Strategists say the approach is efficient, inexpensive and necessary, given that an estimated 96% of Americans own a cellphone of some kind.
“If you’re not reaching people on their mobile, then you’re missing out,” said Tim Lim, a digital consultant and partner with the political firm NewCo Strategies. “It’s vital that you reach people on their phones.”
But the sheer volume of the messages, especially unsolicited ones, is sparking backlash, including in the courts. Last month three Minnesotans sued President Donald Trump’s campaign for blasting them with texts about the president’s Minneapolis rally without their consent. Similar complaints have been filed against U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and former Texas U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 bid for Senate. But experts say that, absent a change in federal regulations, the flow of texts will likely increase in the months ahead.
Campaigns have used direct texts to rally supporters and reach potential voters for more than a decade. In 2008, then-U. S. Sen. Barack Obama announced Joe Biden as his vice presidential pick via a text message to about 3 million people. But advances in technology and voter targeting, combined with the ubiquity of smartphones and texting in general, have fueled growth of the communication strategy in recent years.
One report by the digital firm Tech For Campaigns found that Democratic campaigns and organizations sent more than 350 million texts through two popular services in 2018 — six times the number of messages deployed in 2016 and 2017. Turnout increased slightly among voters courted by text, with highest response rates among voters under 26. Lim, the digital strategist, said well-run text campaigns can produce “amazing results” for fundraising, volunteer activation and voter mobilization.
“It’s very cheap to do. It allows us to reach many, many people,” said Democratic-Farmer-Labor Chairman Ken Martin. “In the time that we would knock on doors or make phone calls, we can text a ton more people in that same time frame.”
Campaigns and other political organizations collect phone numbers from a number of sources. Supporters often opt in to receiving texts when they donate, sign up to volunteer or RSVP for an event hosted by a campaign. In other cases, campaigns buy lists from firms that collect and sell voter data. But given the volume of names and numbers, the lists of would-be supporters aren’t always accurate.
Julia Coleman was bemused by a recent text from a volunteer asking if she was “in for Bernie” Sanders. The Chanhassen City Council member is not only a Republican, but she’s also running for the GOP nomination in a suburban state Senate seat.
“I was just surprised they got my contact information,” said Coleman, the daughter-in-law of former Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman. But the 27-year-old said she could see why she made the list: “I think I do fit their target audience in that I’m a young woman under 30.”
Voters on both sides of the aisle, meanwhile, reported getting texts from the Trump campaign ahead of the president’s Oct. 10 rally in Minneapolis.
“Literally everyone in the Twin Cities got it, whether they’re Republicans or not,” said Chey Eisenman, a “party-neutral” car service owner from St. Paul. Martin, the DFL chairman, got one, too. “They clearly weren’t looking at who’s on their list,” he said with a laugh.
A ‘loophole’ in law
Under federal law, companies and campaigns must get consent before sending auto-dialed calls or texts. But a “peer-to-peer” messaging exception lets organizations skirt that requirement by having a staffer or volunteer “send” each unsolicited text. That doesn’t mean a campaign intern is tapping out each message by hand using their own iPhone. New platforms and technologies boast of enabling a single volunteer to send thousands of messages per hour.
Industry groups say the programs simply facilitate personalized messages and dialogue between the sender and recipient. “P2P text messaging involves real-time, two-way interactions conducted over the channel that is most relevant and meaningful for consumers,” argues P2P Alliance, an industry coalition that has asked the Federal Communications Commission to affirm that their practices are legal.
But consumer advocates say such companies are violating the spirit of the law. “What matters is the capacity of the underlying system itself is,” not whether a person pushes the “send” button, said Margot Saunders, senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center. But given the current language, “it’s up to the FCC or Congress to close that loophole,” she said.
Because campaigns are exempt from do-not-call lists, there’s little recipients can do to prevent unsolicited messages. Saunders recommends concerned citizens think twice before giving out their phone number at an event or online. When an unsolicited text does arrive, responding with “STOP” should remove the recipient from the sender’s list.
Top political leaders in Minnesota say they try to follow the rules and target voters sympathetic to their cause. The DFL has seen success having volunteers cross-reference voter lists with their own personal contacts so they can reach out to friends and acquaintances to encourage them to vote or volunteer. Becky Alery, interim executive director of the Minnesota Republican Party, said the GOP’s 2018 texting program focused on turning out Republicans likely to vote based on past behavior at the polls. “We want to make sure we are following the law and not messaging folks who are not opting in,” she said.
Still, strategists on both sides say they expect reliance on texting to increase given the cost, ease and trend of more Americans turning to messaging as their preferred method of communication.
Despite the annoyance of the buzzes and beeps, some Minnesotans say a text, which can be easily ignored, is better than the alternative.
“I’d rather have texts than phone calls,” Lauer-Schumacher said. “A text makes your phone buzz once, versus it [ringing] 20 times.”