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‘Texting is the new handshake’ for Biden, Trump and other campaigns during the pandemic

Text messaging was already poised to take off in the 2020 presidential race. Then the coronavirus hit.

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The night Sen. Bernie Sanders ended his campaign for president, a text message arrived.

It’s Joe Biden. And I will be your Democratic nominee for president.

The next day, the phone buzzed again.

Bernie’s out. It’s Trump vs. Biden. Can Pres. Trump count on you?

Welcome to the texting wars of 2020.

More and more, campaigns are trying to reach prospective voters on their phones. Trump and Biden are no exception, pinging the pockets of would-be supporters several times a week. Sometimes it’s to ask a favor or share a message. More often, they want money.

This year was already shaping up to see the most aggressive deployment of text messages ever in a presidential campaign. Then the coronavirus hit the United States. For the past month, fear of the fast-spreading virus has pushed the presidential race completely off the trail — rallies and fundraisers are cancelled, campaign offices are closed and no one is knocking on doors. It’s a digital race, for now.

One of the only ways candidates and campaigns can still reach voters is by text message, elevating its prominence in the playbook of winning elections. Think of it like baking sourdough bread: Before the coronavirus, it was a nice skill to have; now, everyone is doing it to get by, so you better be, too.

“Texting is the new handshake,” said Thomas Peters, the CEO of RumbleUp, a company that provides a texting platform for Republican candidates.

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Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign is credited with being the first to unleash the mobilizing power of these mini messages. By texting people based on their location, his team realized it could ask people to knock on doors in states about to hold a primary. And the response was tremendous, said Daniel Souweine, who ran Sanders’ texting operation in 2016.

By the 2018 mid-term elections, Democratic and Republican candidates across the country had a texting strategy. Tech for Campaigns, an organization that helps progressive and centrist campaigns with their digital operations, estimated that Democratic candidates texted more than 350 million people in 2018 — six times what candidates sent in 2016 and 2017 combined.

The 2020 election will make those numbers look tiny. Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale recently said the president’s re-election team will send 1 billion text messages through Nov. 3. Biden’s campaign wouldn’t provide an estimate, but the former vice president has often urged supporters to sign up for text updates, from the early Democratic debates to the remote news conferences he has held throughout the coronavirus. In the past week, his campaign has sent eight strings of messages to supporters.

“The scale of this is just going to be mind boggling,” said Rick Gorka, spokesman for the Republican National Committee and Trump Victory.

And it’s only getting more sophisticated. Campaigns have devoured publicly available data on most Americans and spit it out into millions of voter files. Ever since the 2016 election ended, Trump’s campaign has been building a mammoth, well-funded digital operation that supposedly has 3,000 data points for every name in its system. That information is used to shape the messages targeted at each individual.

Trump’s campaign tested that system out during the impeachment trial, Gorka said. The texts they sent served as counter messaging to the troublesome headlines that emerged from Washington. Many of those texts asked for donations to fight back against the forces trying to remove the president from office.

Related: Why Ron DeSantis’ popularity has taken a hit since the pandemic started

The service provided by RumbleUp and others is known in the industry as “peer-to-peer texting” because there’s a human that physically hits “send” on every message. That makes it different than emails, which campaigns send in bulk, sometimes to millions of addresses.

It also allows the campaign to engage with the person receiving the text, a feature that the Democratic presidential campaigns deployed judiciously to penetrate through the crowded field and start conversations with prospective voters about their candidate. If the recipient responded with questions about the candidate’s positions, the campaign could provide those answers.

Tech for Campaigns found someone was nearly 10 percent more likely to vote if they responded to one of those texts. It’s no surprise then campaigns these days are eager to create that conversation. Recently, Biden solicited nominations for community heroes via text. Trump in a message this week urged his supporters to take a survey that he claimed would shape his “America First policy.”

“There’s a real back and forth," said Souweine, who after the 2016 election started GetThru, a peer-to-peer texting company used by progressives. “They might not have a personal relationship with you but there is a person there just like if someone is at your door.”

And it makes it an especially appealing tool to reach the millions of Americans stuck at home right now. Souweine said the coronavirus outbreak will test which campaigns can motivate people from a distance.

Last week, the Biden campaign was in constant contact with its Wisconsin supporters leading up to the state’s primary. There, a contentious fight erupted between the state’s Democratic governor and Republican Legislature over whether to proceed with the election amid a pandemic. The fight instigated almost daily changes to where and how people could vote. Text messages from the Biden campaign helped navigate people to the polls amid the chaos.

In swing states like Florida where elections are decided in the margins, that kind of creative deployment can give a campaign the edge. If that sounds dubious, Peters insisted it has already happened.

Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle in 2018 right before the mid-term elections. Thousands of residents evacuated. Some never returned, others lived in temporary shelters and tents until their homes could be rebuilt. Polling sites were destroyed and for many, voting wasn’t a priority.

Working for the Republican Party of Florida, RumbleUp sent text messages to likely GOP voters in some of the hardest hit areas. At first, the messages sounded like a sympathetic check in or an offer to track down government services. “Are you and your family doing ok?” they started.

From there, the Republican Party of Florida offered to help the person get an absentee ballot, which many people gladly accepted. RumbleUp claimed turnout among the people it texted was actually 10 percent higher than in the midterm election four years prior. The 2018 U.S. Senate and governor races were decided by recounts and Republicans won both.

“It’s a story we’re telling to our clients because a lot of them are in shock right now,” Peters said. “We’re trying to help campaigns realize just because you have to suspend what you’re used to doing, the retail politics of the last 100 years, doesn’t mean you can’t reach people.”

He added: “Being able to coach people and help people through that is something that live texting can do. It’s going to be insane, frankly.”

Florida Democrats recently texted 1 million voters urging them to sign up for vote-by-mail ballots in anticipation the coronavirus will still be here for the November election. The state party tapped into a massive database of cell phone numbers the Democratic National Committee purchased in January to increase voter contact in 2020 and keep up with the Trump operation.

These aren’t text messages that friends type to each other on their smartphones. All of this is done through computer programs. The message is pre-written and a phone number is automatically pulled from a database. A campaign staffer or volunteer just hits send, over and over and over again.

And sure, someone is there to interact if a recipient responds. But that person is also there for legal purposes. Without a human hitting “send," the peer-to-peer texting software could be considered an autodialer and banned under a 1991 federal law that tried to thwart robocalls.

Lawmakers (understandably) failed to envision the coming technological revolution that would lead to smart phones and a text-sized loophole in the 1991 law. Consumer advocacy groups have contended there’s little difference between the autodialers that tormented Americans in the 1980s and these modern computer programs. They have urged the Federal Communications Commission to shut it down.

In a letter to the agency, the National Consumer Law Center highlighted advertising from peer-to-peer texting companies promising clients their software can send thousands of text messages an hour — one text every second, or faster. The organization argues: How is that not the same as a robocall?

“Clearly, the individual human involvement in sending these messages is so vanishingly small as to be meaningless, and is inserted into the process simply for purposes of evasion,” Margot Saunders, senior counsel for the National Consumer Law Center, wrote in the letter.

New regulation is unlikely this election cycle, though changes could affect its use in future campaigns. Still, if the past is a predictor, technology companies will find another loophole and sell a new solution to ping thousands of cell phones in an hour.

Though more expensive than sending emails, the results so far have made peer-to-peer texting alluring. People are far more likely to open a text than an email, according to the research firm Gartner. The reason is obvious: There’s much less competition for attention on someone’s text message inbox than their email inbox, Gartner wrote.

The success of peer-to-peer texting has created another conundrum for campaigns: overuse. The Democratic presidential candidates blasted out so many texts in the primary, that USA Today published a guide on how to opt-out of receiving them. Text messages are only going to get more prolific, as companies like RumbleUp and GetThru have made peer-to-peer texting accessible to candidates in all races, down to local city council elections.

“Some people love it,” said Julia Gill Woodward, who ran Gwen Graham’s campaign for governor in 2018. “They see it as the one platform where you can engage with folks. When you’re texting with someone it gives you a chance to ask questions. But they can also say, ‘Please stop sending me these text messages.’ ”

Like with email, campaigns expect there will eventually be diminishing returns on text messages. But they’re still sending those emails and voters should expect their phone to buzz often this year with messages from Biden or Trump.

“There’s plenty of secret sauce that goes into how many times a voter will receive a text,” Gorka said. “There’s a reason and a method behind the message.”

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