With less than a week to go before early voting starts in New York City’s primary elections this month, the very mention of the flood of texts voters receive from political campaigns elicits some strong reactions: “Hate. It.” “Please stop.” “Unsubscribe.”
Just when they thought they’d mastered the art of avoiding the unrelenting stream of requests for their attention, support and money – screening calls from unlisted numbers, unplugging the still-remaining landlines at dinnertime, pretending not to be home when canvassers come knocking – voters were confronted with a new frontier in campaign outreach. Texts from political campaigns, typically done through peer-to-peer texting platforms in which an actual person from the campaign is at the other end of the text message, are now ubiquitous in 2021.
Political candidates filling phones with text pleas for votes or donations can feel invasive to some. “It can be very annoying and very overwhelming,” said Zach Topkis, a Democratic primary voter who lives in Brooklyn. While the texts can sometimes be relatively easy to ignore and may even be preferable for some to alternatives like physical mailers, campaign texts can be maddening when they continue to come after a voter tries to opt-out from them, or when voters are targeted by texts about candidates in races outside their district. “They’re like, ‘Can we count on you to vote?’ And it’s like, ‘No, I don’t live in your district,’” Topkis said. While some voters might get texts from districts they lived in previously, the outreach is sometimes more random; Topkis said he received text about a Manhattan district where he’s never lived.
Others see the text message as the last bastion of personal communication, as e-mail is now oversaturated with fundraising appeals, advertisements and other messages that are automatically ignored. Of course, the personal nature of texting is exactly what makes that kind of outreach uniquely appealing to campaigns hoping to establish a relationship with voters.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the primary campaign season of 2020 to mostly virtual activities, texting was an important tool to continue direct voter outreach when door-knocking wasn’t a possibility. But while some in-person campaigning makes a return, as COVID-19 rates drop and vaccinations surge, the use of text banking by political candidates hasn’t dissipated. “The prevalence of texting as a voter contact tool has grown tremendously over the last several years,” said Jake Dilemani, a managing director at Mercury Public Affairs, whose clients use text banking, including in City Council races and in citywide voter education campaigns. “Each year, it becomes more and more a staple of a campaign.” Candidates and consultants say that text banking hasn’t necessarily become more important than other tools, such as phone banking, digital advertisements or good old fashioned door-knocking, but it’s increasingly one that campaigns feel they have to have in their arsenal.
If it feels like you’re getting more campaign texts this year than in the last city election cycle – or even than in more recent state elections – it’s likely in part because the tool has become more widespread overall, but also because of the sheer number of contests happening across the city this year. “This cycle, because New York is such a particularly crazy political environment, with hundreds and hundreds of candidates running, people are probably feeling a little bit of text burnout,” said Doug Forand, a senior partner at Red Horse Strategies, which is consulting on Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ mayoral run, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s comptroller run and more down ballot races. Whereas the mayoral, comptroller and most City Council seats had incumbents in 2017, wide-open mayoral, comptroller, borough president and district attorney primaries, plus dozens of City Council seats up for grabs, mean voters are likely also feeling overwhelmed by other kinds of outreach too.
In the midst of the 2018 midterm election, The New York Times observed a new “texting era,” in which Beto O’Rourke’s Texas Senate run and Stacey Abrams’ Georgia gubernatorial bid were among the campaigns taking advantage of the increasingly popular tool. Though the Times wrote that the use of peer-to-peer texting made its national debut on Sen. Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign, one Republican strategist called texting “the breakout tech of 2018.”
Now, it’s not just in presidential and congressional runs that the tool has become somewhat ubiquitous, but in more local races, too. Peer-to-peer texting, facilitated through a proliferating number of platforms like Hustle, GetThru and RumbleUp, is attractive to political campaigns for several reasons. Voters’ cell phone numbers are relatively easy to find, either through voter registration files or purchased through commercial data sellers. It’s optional for New York voters to provide their phone number on voter registration forms, but because the field is there, some fill it out, giving campaigns an easy way to contact them. Even voters who don’t provide their number when registering to vote can still be targeted. Marketing firms can enhance voter files with the help of data brokers, which buy and sell your personal data, including phone numbers, selling that information to political campaigns and parties.
And while federal law restricts unsolicited automated texting, peer-to-peer texting is distinct because it’s not technically automated; a staffer, volunteer or the candidate themself is actually sending the text to the voter, with the assistance of platforms. (The peer-to-peer texting boom is in part due to this loophole, Fast Company wrote in 2020.) If you receive a text message from an unknown number purporting to be from an actual candidate, it may in fact be that candidate on the other end, but the number is a proxy generated by the platform.
It’s also relatively cheap. Depending on the platform and whether campaigns use proprietary software, services might charge as low as 5 cents and as high as 15 cents per text. Email outreach is typically cheaper for campaigns, but texts tend to have much higher open rates than emails. And even for those who open a text just to see it’s from a campaign and then promptly delete it, five seconds of a voter’s attention can pay dividends in name recognition for a candidate, consultants said.
But cost isn’t campaigns’ only concern. After all, door-knocking is free (albeit time-consuming.) Justin Krebs, a candidate in New York City’s 39th Council district who is using a texting service called Spoke, said texting makes it easier for the campaign to communicate with voters on their terms. “You go to someone’s door, you don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “You don’t know if they’re having dinner with a kid, if they’re on a Zoom call for work. I’ve knocked on people’s doors who are in the middle of yoga class.” But a voter can glance at a text when it comes in and respond later when it’s convenient.
Krebs, who is the national director of campaigns at the progressive advocacy group MoveOn, said that progressive organizations and electoral campaigns around the country started seeing high engagement from texting in 2018. Now Krebs said he’s seen it in his Council run too. Krebs said that thousands of people responded to recent texts from his campaign asking voters what issues matter most to them, and he ended up having hundreds of exchanges with them. Forand, the political consultant, echoed the idea that a great advantage to texting is that it can allow people to have a direct conversation with a candidate or other campaign worker and have their questions answered, but said that it’s a “small minority” of people who actually engage in conversation.
Julie Menin, a candidate for the City Council on the Upper East Side, said that using text banking in her Council campaign was a no-brainer after she deployed it while leading the city’s census outreach efforts last year. That allowed census workers to directly answer people’s questions about how to fill out the form, which ended up being an especially important service while field operations were suspended. And there are steps political campaigns can take to make it less grating. “We never do texting for fundraising,” Menin said, noting that her text outreach focuses on her platform issues. “There are a lot of the city campaigns that are bombarding people with fundraising texts, and I think that gets annoying for people.”
For those who detest political campaigns pinging their pockets, it may come as a surprise that some voters actually text back. But some actually do. Meirav Levy-Bernstein, a voter in Manhattan, said she only learned that the district attorney races were not using ranked choice voting – like other races in the city – after responding to a campaign text. And some voters prefer it to other forms of voter outreach like mailers (bad for the environment), phone calls (harder to unsubscribe to), and digital ads (completely inescapable.)
Jimmy Choi, another New York voter, said however that he hasn’t found the texting to be engaging in any way. Other forms of outreach have been more successful, including phone banking, which led Choi to having a five-minute conversation with City Council candidate Elizabeth Adams, who is running in the 33rd district in Brooklyn, which he called “substantive” and “useful.”
Some voters said that a benefit of texting is that it can be easy to ignore, especially when they’re offered an opt-out or “unsubscribe” option, and when their choice to opt out is actually respected. But when the texts continue to flood in or no opt-out is offered, it can be exasperating. One voter suggested that the City Council pass a law to require campaigns to offer the option to opt-out of texts. Others suggested that text banking would be better leveraged for use in even farther down ballot races, like judicial elections, where most voters could benefit from learning a little bit more about the candidates running and their platforms. With less money flowing in those judicial races, text banking is not yet pervasive.
But if texting’s popularity keeps growing at this rate, we just might get there. Peer-to-peer texting is still just one tool that campaigns use, and it’s not interchangeable with in-person interactions or other forms of outreach, campaigns said. But texting has become an essential tactic, and any campaign that has the resources to use it should be doing so, Dilemani said. At least until campaigns discover some new form of communication to capitalize on. “Unless the fax machine makes a comeback, texting is here to stay, at least for now,” he said.