Every election cycle there is an advancement that changes the game.
In 2016, the Trump campaign and RNC dedicated far more of their budget to digital media than had ever been done before. This is particularly true when it came to their focus on small-dollar, online donations. 2014 represented the first real critical mass usage of door knocking apps to improve efficiency. President Barack Obama pushed Twitter to the forefront during his campaigns and even announced his re-election campaign on the platform. While Facebook and other online platforms have given smaller campaigns the ability to reach more voters, none of those advances will match the technology of 2018.
Peer-to-Peer (nicknamed P2P) texting will be the most significant advancement in political campaigning in a generation. For years, political campaigns have canvassed voters by making phone calls and knocking on their doors. This is a very inefficient way to contact voters. The very best at door knocking will only be able to reach 30 voters an hour at a 25% completion rate depending on the time of day. That means for every hour of human labor; you are only connecting with 5–10 voters. That means it will take a lot of hours of labor to reach enough voters to swing an election. Phone calls are even worse. Although you can contact more people per hour by calling them, they are less likely to be convinced, and the contact percentage can be as low as 2–3%. According to Pew, the response rate for their polling has dropped from 36% to 9% over the past 20 years. Those are trained callers too! On top of that, calling is becoming less efficient because power dialers cannot be used on cell phone numbers. This presents a problem for pollsters and campaigns alike. In 2004, 92.7% of U.S. households had a landline. That number has dropped to 43.8% today. For now, pollsters are still somewhat isolated as most of the 43.8% tend to be older and vote at a higher propensity than those who do not have a landline. This problem will become more pronounced in the future though.
Bernie Sanders for President Campaign: The Founder of the Revolution
Enter texting. P2P texting was first used at scale by the Bernie Sanders for President campaign in 2016 through the app Hustle.
The Daily Dot highlighted the technology in April 2016 with a piece titled “This text messaging app is Bernie Sanders’s secret weapon.” This was in direct response to a poll done in October 2015 that concluded that 19% of people said text messaging was the best way to reach voters, yet only 10% of those polled said they had been contacted in the past by a candidate by text message.
Sanders Regional Field Director Zach Fang explained its value perfectly:
“An organizer makes 200 calls, its a great day. … And if 10 of those people show up its considered a success,” Fang said. “That first weekend, we did 8,000 … [contacts] with six staffers. With a typical field program, you’re not hitting 8,000 doors in two months with 30 organizers. We did it in one week with six. The next week, we did 15,000.”
The Sanders campaign found that 98% of texts are opened, and 83% of texts are opened within the first three minutes. That is remarkable when emails are only opened at a 15–30% rate for most organizations. Also as was mentioned before, doors are only opened at a 15–35% rate and calls are answered at below a 10% rate. Hustle claims that their technology specifically is 77X faster than making phone calls and 5.5X more engaging than email.
Democrats also have an alternative to Hustle named Relay. Relay has broken into the market quickly and has been used by prominent organizations like the ACLU, Washington State Democratic Party, and Working Families Party. It will be interesting to see if the vendor war in texting ends up like many others within the Democratic Party though. As I highlighted last year, while the RNC tends to embrace competition in its app marketplace, the DNC does not.
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Spoke — The Open Source Alternative
For the technologically sound, there is an open source solution that was created by two developers on the Bernie Sanders campaign. Spoke is now being maintained by MoveOn.org and MoveOn is targeting this tool to progressive organizations. With this being an open source tool on GitHub though, the reality is that anyone can use it. Spoke uses Twilio as a messaging service API and Auth0 for user authentication. As a result, Spoke is far cheaper than other services. Text messages start at $0.0075 per SMS to send and receive and MMS are $0.02 to send and $0.01 to receive. Spoke’s low cost does come with some downsides though. The campaign or organization running the campaigns will need to provide their own support and will come under much greater legal scrutiny than if they contracted with a vendor.
Republicans Catching Up Quickly
While Hustle initially worked with anyone, they quickly moved to only supporting campaigns and causes aligned with progressives like many other technologies. Tech Crunch famously said: “Hustle rallies $30M for grassroots texting tool Republicans can’t use.” While technically Republicans can no longer use Hustle, that doesn’t mean the market hasn’t moved quickly to fill the gap.
Filling the void for an affordable option is CallHub. CallHub is entirely self-service and relies on an administrator to help set-up the campaigns for volunteers to use. CallHub charges $0.016 per-outbound text and $0.012 per-inbound text. CallHub is open to individuals, businesses, and organizations of any political persuasion.
RumbleUp represents the more mainstream option that is more feature packed. RumbleUp has made the bold statement that
“When it comes to campaign technology, Democrats invent, Republicans perfect.”
RumbleUp is new to the game, but their founders are not. RumbleUp was founded by uCampaign, the same company that built the Cruz and Trump for President apps.
RumbleUp has already notched a few big wins this election cycle in Republican primaries. RumbleUp took significant credit for Jeff Johnson’s upset primary victory in the Minnesota Gubernatorial primary election.
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They also notched another big win in the Alaska Gubernatorial Primary for State Senator Mike Dunleavy last week.
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RumbleUp is more expensive than CallHub, but they open up the valuable possibility of MMS. Their contracts involve a setup fee ranging from $75–500, a monthly retainer ranging from $50–150/month, and a per text cost of 8 cents an SMS and 11 cents an MMS or 22 cents a month per record for unlimited SMS and 28 cents for unlimited MMS.
Opn Sesame is the app backed by more heavy hitters in Republican politics. Gary Coby, the Director of Digital Advertising and Fundraising for President Trump in 2016 and Gerrit Lansing, the former Chief Digital Officer at the RNC and Chief Digital Officer at the White House, founded the app in many ways as “the Hustle of the right.”
Coby and Lansing’s relationships within the Republican Party will undoubtedly help them build partnerships with other vendors and general consultants. Opn Sesame also provides a unique pricing model. Instead of billing based on individual texts and replies, they price per conversation. Most campaigns will pay between $0.13 to $0.15 per conversation with Opn Sesame.
Opn Sesame has not been as open as the other “big 3” vendors (Hustle, Relay, and RumbleUp) about their case studies to this point, but is a major player in the space.
But How Is This Legal?
“But this text message golden age has operated largely in a legal grey area. Past text-message campaigning was mostly automated “broadcast” texting, which legally required explicit opt-ins with heavy fines for spam. The vast majority of this year’s political texting, however, doesn’t require voters to opt in to be pinged.
Peer-to-peer texting companies have created online platforms and smartphone apps that auto-fill the phone numbers and the text message the campaign wants sent, allowing a single volunteer to send several hundred or thousands of text messages to targeted voters every hour. Since the person is pressing send one at a time and that person can edit the message, the peer-to-peer texts are not currently subject to the same regulations as automated ones.”
Nearly all of the companies in the space allow for campaign and organizations to rent telephone numbers, protecting their volunteers from unwanted harassment. Unfortunately, the technology has shown it will likely be further regulated like others due to bad actors. A 2002 Federal Elections Commission (FEC) ruling exempts text from such disclosures because of the limited number of characters, but with Facebook now adopting a “Paid for” disclaimer on ads, it’s likely that texting vendors will come under scrutiny.
The group at the forefront of fighting for texting’s future in campaigns is the P2P Alliance. The P2P Alliance is asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to clarify that P2P texting complies with the terms of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and the FCC’s implementation of that law. It exists to advocate for sensible regulation around P2P text messaging technologies.
Texting’s Impact on Fundraising
Naturally, the advantages of texting for canvassing also carries over to fundraising. Opn Sesame pitches improved fundraising as a core feature of their product including suggestions that “1 text packs the punch of 10 emails” and that they can improve lapsed donor engagement. RumbleUp also suggests their clients to “Send prospecting text messages to individuals that have been modeled to be likely donors/supporters of your cause.” In many ways, campaigns and organizations will look at texting as a way to supplement their email and direct mail fundraising campaigns.
RumbleUp is also completing an integration with Anedot so shared clients can P2P text individuals whose credit card they have on file, and if that individual responds with the correct message, charge the card and send them a receipt without the individual even having to click a donation link or complete a form. This kind of efficiency will encourage more political fundraisers to test the power of texting.
The Incoming Data War
There is one major weakness of texting: most organizations do not have good cell phone numbers. This is a problem across the DNC, RNC, and more. People change cell phone numbers more often than they did landlines and acquiring those numbers is much more difficult. Vendors like L2 and i360 include phone numbers in their voter files, but their data is still reliant on source files filled with inaccuracies. With texting holding a more significant role in political and advocacy campaigns, there will be a greater need for better cell phone numbers in the voter file. The most obvious target to acquire these numbers will be corporate rewards and coupon programs.
It will be interesting to see what creative methods are used to acquire numbers. Already though, it appears that some organizations will turn to questionable practices. The progressive political group NextGen used FOIA requests to obtain the cellphone numbers of college students at multiple universities.