MIAMI — As election season reaches a crescendo, campaign ads aren’t just hanging from your doorknob, filling up your mailbox, cluttering your inbox, interrupting your favorite TV shows and beckoning from billboards. Politicians are capitalizing on an increasingly popular way to win your vote by inundating your cellphone with text messages.
More than a billion texts will be sent in support of local, statewide and national campaigns by Nov. 3, say candidates and their consultants. Like it or not, they’ve found texting to be an effective, efficient method for using personal data to engage directly with voters who spend half their waking hours on their mobile phones.
Because privacy is as quaint as the telephone booth, and voters' cell numbers have been bought, sold, shared and rented out many times over, a candidate or volunteer or software company that is running a texting operation can greet recipients by first name in hopes of creating a rapport much harder to achieve through ringing doorbells or broadcasting advertisements.
Cellphone users, hard-wired to at least glance at texts, also are more likely to open them for a range of reasons, said Kevin Munger, assistant professor of political science and social media analytics at Penn State.
“People are resigned to getting spam calls and not listening or blocking them,” Munger said. “But their annoyance tolerance is higher for something they perceive as more important than a commercial pitch for a credit card or, say, selling Coke over Pepsi compared to Trump over Biden.”
Multiple times a day voters see texts soliciting donations, touting or bashing candidates, asking survey questions, coordinating campaign workers or encouraging them to cast their ballots:
— “Hi John, it’s Israel with MoveOn. Politico reports that a ‘green tsunami’ — a wave of donations from Democrats like us — could flip control of the Senate! A Joe Biden presidency AND Democratic Senate are now within reach. Can you chip in $15 to help flip the Senate?”
— “Looting. Rioting. Burning Cities. These are the realities of a Biden America. See this future for yourself & ensure it’s not ours.”
— “Hi, it’s Michael from Vote From Home 2020. If you live at (insert your address) voting files suggest that you may not have requested a vote-by-mail ballot yet. If you change your mind you can still vote in person, so keep your options open by requesting a ballot.”
— “Hey there John, I’m Diana with FL Research. We have a brief survey for Miami-Dade & we want to hear from you.”
The texts aim to tread a fine line between motivating and irritating voters. They come with one big advantage: People who delete emails without opening them or don’t answer calls from suspicious numbers can’t avoid texts. It’s an intrusion that also can backfire, strategists say.
"Voters have grown quite sick of texts. It’s another invasion of their privacy, and their first reaction is often, ‘How did you get my number?’ " said Evan Ross, president of the Aventura public affairs communications firm, Public Communicators Group. He is running three Political Action Committees and advising 10 clients this election cycle, and they’ve sent a total of 100,000 texts. But those pings even get under his skin.
“I was in line for early voting when I received a text for the fourth time asking if I was committed to Biden and Harris,” he said. “I responded by telling the sender they need better data. They can’t be barraging people with repetitive texts and annoying them.”
The hope, Ross said, is a productive exchange, a conversation. Ideally, voter and candidate learn about one another.
"You’re able to make that crucial ask, ‘Can I count on your vote?’ " he said. “A text can be so much more valuable than sending a mass mailer or knocking on a door when nobody’s home. But when a text is deleted out of frustration you’ve missed that connection.”
Texting has been especially useful since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Ross knows a candidate in a condo-dense district who could not do the traditional door-to-door canvassing or host bagel breakfasts in meeting rooms. She switched to texting as her outreach solution.
The percentage of people who reply varies depending on how well an audience is targeted, but a 10-15% response rate is good, according to Ross and Nathaniel Lubin, co-founder of Survey 160, a software company that provides text-based polling and research services.
“At a time when people increasingly don’t answer their phones, SMS (Short Message Service texts of 160 characters or less) is an attractive way for analytics groups and pollsters to get meaningful data quickly and at scale,” said Lubin, who worked on Barack Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012 when texting began to take off. “We typically do get higher response rates than other methods, especially for surveys. Texting is easier for respondents in that they get to choose when and how to respond, rather than needing to be available at the exact moment required by other channels.”
Ross saw a response Thursday that captured many voters' feelings of text fatigue: “Who do I need to vote out of office to STOP these text messages? (With an emoji of a crying frowny face.)”
Though its use has exploded, texting remains largely unregulated by election and communications laws, allowing both savvy strategists and unsophisticated campaign managers to spread misinformation anonymously. Voters can receive a text and have no idea who is behind it. Disclaimers identifying who paid for the text messages are not required because there is too little space within the standard 160-character limit to fit that extra verbiage.
Lack of oversight and transparency has spawned some outrageous attack texts.
In the midst of another wild and nasty campaign season in Hallandale Beach, a text stating “Urgent Election Information” went out that appeared to be sent by incumbent commission candidate Michele Lazarow. It linked to a “Michele Lazarow For Commissioner?” website that disparaged and insulted Lazarow with bizarre headlines like “Breaks the Law and Incites Violence” and “Celebrates the Life of the ‘prophet’ Mohammed, an Oppressor of Women” and “Michele’s Dirty Relationship with Evan Ross.”
The mystery disclaimer at the bottom of the home page says: “I’m a concerned citizen of Hallandale Beach, and I have free speech guaranteed by the 1st amendment of the U.S. Constitution. I love Hallandale Beach, and I’m tired of Michele Lazarow allowing by (SIC) beloved city to look trashy!! Don’t vote for Michele please. Thank you!!!”
The deliberate misrepresentation and unaccountability for funding of the ad makes it illegal, but Lazarow’s attempts to trace the origin were fruitless. No one, including Commissioner Anabelle Lima-Taub, who is running for reelection in another district, or Mayor Joy Cooper — who have tangled with Lazarow in the past — has taken responsibility. Lazarow’s opponent, Dmitry Yakubovich, denied any involvement, saying “The politics have been very dirty in Hallandale over the past few elections. I’m not in favor of this. There’s no place for it in Hallandale.”
Lazarow and her adviser and friend Ross said they were “disgusted” by the deceptive message. The number that sent the text has been flagged by consumers complaining of robocalls and scams.
“The people who want to corrupt our city have proven they will break the law as they work to get me out of their way,” she said. “It’s clear these corrupting forces want Anabelle Lima-Taub, Joy Cooper and anyone other than me on the commission. I trust the residents of Hallandale Beach to see through the lies. I trust law enforcement to investigate and prosecute the criminals.”
“That’s the dark side,” said Ross, who created online and TV counterattack ads against Lima-Taub and Cooper with paid-for disclaimers from his Good Government PAC. “People can hide more easily on texts. In the cases of fraud, we need prosecutors to subpoena records and track the digital trail, but often law enforcement views these acts as political shenanigans that are not hurting anybody.”
The texting flood has grown as campaigns exploit a loophole in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act that was designed to control robocalls. Peer-to-peer texting allows a sender to send messages to recipients without their consent if they are sent one at a time. New tech companies with apps like Hustle, GetThru, RumbleUp and Opn Sesame have sprung up to generate millions of texts. Less laborious mass texting is allowed if recipients gave permission to be texted. Voters can usually stop receiving them by replying “stop” or “unsubscribe.”
“I identify 5,000 voters I want to reach legally through peer-to-peer texting,” Ross said. “I’d get carpal tunnel syndrome hitting send 5,000 times so I hire a vendor and pay a few cents per text for him to do the clicks. While robocalls were big 10-15 years ago, owning a landline is now like owning a typewriter. Texting is the booming industry. Campaigns are spending tens of millions of dollars on this platform.”
Ross predicts a trend toward expanded virtual communication for politicians. Campaign trails shrink when voters can tune in to town halls and rallies from home via Zoom. In-person hand-shaking and baby-kissing won’t disappear but candidates and constituents alike have learned during the pandemic how to reach people remotely.
“A local candidate could host Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg on the call because they don’t have to fly to Miami,” he said. “We’ve already seen higher citizen participation in city commission meetings on Zoom. Convenience and accessibility. Virtual platforms will increase engagement opportunities exponentially.”
Munger envisions a rise in campaign alliances with popular influencers.
“Influencer marketing has not yet fully penetrated the political scene,” he said. “That’s where all advertising is going these days. Eventually it will make texting seem as old-fashioned as calling people on their home phone.”
(Miami Herald staff writer Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.)