Politics Goes Mobile in US Presidential Election

Originally published October 10, 2012

More Americans are turning to their cell phones to engage and keep up with the US presidential election, something experts say politicians are well aware of and hoping to capitalize on.

“Mobile is the new frontier,” said Vincent Harris, a digital campaign strategist who ran online operations for two Republican presidential contenders – Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. “From mobile advertising to mobile apps, mobile has the largest room for growth in the entire digital industry,” he said.

In September, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey examining the intersection of mobile phones and politics.

According to the study, a significant number of the 731 registered voters contacted, use their phones to get information on the election and to post or read political messages on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Researchers say another notable finding is that 35 percent of smartphone users surveyed, use their phones to fact check things they hear about candidates.

This is significant, especially when trying to target the minority vote said Peter Levine, the director of the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a non-partisan organization that examines young people in civic engagement.

“Minority voters and low income people are more likely to have a smart phone than a computer,” said Levine in a phone interview Wednesday.

Because of the increased availability of mobile phones, especially in low income communities, Levine says potential voters are able to fact check and research a political campaign on an equal playing field, regardless of socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Cellphones are now what Facebook was in the 2008 campaign and what websites were in 2004,” he said.

And mobile campaign strategists like Vincent Harris say they know exactly how to reach these smart phones users, whether they are interested in politics or not.

“The average person uses their phone to text a friend, watch a video online or look up entrainment news,” Harris said. So when his firm was tasked with running Perry’s online presidential campaign, Harris focused his ads on places where potential voters were already looking.

“In Iowa, we were able to advertise through Google to mobile devices. We were able to target people who were physically on Christian college campuses while they were browsing the web on their mobile phones,” Harris said.

The Pew study also examined the effectiveness of political text messages. Among registered voters who text, 19 percent sent political texts to family and friends, while 5 percent of those surveyed reported they received unsolicited texts from campaigns.

“People don’t want to give out their cell phone number because they don’t want to get spammed by telemarketers and pollsters,” said Levine.

And since almost every text message sent is opened, Levine says campaigns work to find ways to obtain cell phone numbers of prospective supporters.

An area in the digital arena researchers say is playing only a minor role in the presidential campaign is political mobile applications. According to the Pew study, while 45 percent of the registered voters surveyed use apps, only 8 percent use campaign affiliated apps, a figure Harris says is not surprising.

“It takes a hyper engaged hyper partisan person to download an app from a candidate. These apps are created for a very niche audience,” said Harris. But there are exceptions, he says, for example the Obama campaign mobile app turns users into campaign volunteers.

“The Obama campaign created a fantastic piece of technology where their supporters can download the app and become canvassers, empowering individuals to go door to door,” Harris explains.

Moving forward, Harris says more and more campaigns will begin to integrate these types of features to engage supporters. And because creating an app is so costly, Harris believes unless you are running for president, it isn’t worth the cost to build your own mobile application.