Text messaging is playing a growing role in the 2008 presidential race as a handful of candidates look to the technology to reach younger voters often glued to their mobile phones.
The three leading Democratic candidates -- Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards -- are providing "mobile updates" to supporters who choose to receive SMS or short message service updates on their cell phones.
AdvertisementPolitical observers say that although this technology has been available for a number of years, its use as an organizing tool has been demonstrated in other countries: some say text messages helped fuel rallies that led to the ouster of Philippine president Joseph Estrada in 2001; and it may have tipped the balance in the 2004 elections in Spain as a "viral" messaging campaign got out the vote.
In the United States, some say this potential has yet to be tapped for political campaigns, which already use a variety of technologies such as email, websites, blogs and online videos.
Industry figures showed 158 billion text messages were sent in 2006 between Americans, who own some 243 million mobile phones. About 43 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in the US text daily, according to Insight Express, as do 10 percent of the 55- to 64-year-old generation.
"It could be an incredibly useful mobilization tool," says Julie Germany, deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University.
The use of text messaging "is catching on little bit in the US but text messaging in this country is nowhere near as big as it is in places like Europe, Latin America and Asia."
Aaron Strauss, a Princeton University graduate student who has researched technology and elections, said savvy candidates are looking to SMS to reach younger voters whose participation has been disappointing in recent years.
Strauss said his study showed that persons who received a text message reminder ahead of an election were about four percent more likely to vote than those who did not.
"The newest generation of voters is starting use text messaging and as they become politically active I think you'll see text messaging become more important in campaigns," he said.
Mobile phone users can text for updates to Obama (62262), Clinton (77007) or Edwards (30644).
"By harnessing the power of text messaging, we can engage voters in the political process using the latest technology and provide personalized, local campaign updates to our supporters nationwide," Clinton said in a statement on the launch of her service.
Julie Ask, analyst at JupiterResearch, said Obama appeared to have an early edge in using mobile technology, with a snappier code -- 62262 spells Obama, for example -- and with mobile content and "wallpaper" for phones.
She said candidates should not assume that only young voters will be moved by text. "I would remind (candidates) that the percentage of cellphone users ages 55 and over using text messaging doubled last year," Ask said.
But analysts say the United States is not ready for the "smart mobs" created by SMS such as in the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, or around the 2002 South Korean elections. Some say text messaging did help organizers in the 1999 anti-globalization protests in Seattle, Washington.
Americans are less frequent text messagers because they use email more frequently and because mobile operators charge 10 to 15 cents per message, which can make it costly for frequent users, say analysts.
So far Republican candidates have yet to use mobile messaging, but some activist groups, including environmentalists and organizations on both sides of the abortion debate, have used SMS to help get out the vote.
Julie Germany said text message campaigns are most effective when they become "viral," or spread from one person to another, instead of a single message sent to thousands from a campaign headquarters.
"Messages spread from friend to friend, person to person and have an immediate action attached to them are the most effective," she said.
Justin Oberman, a mobile marketing consultant who has advised political candidates, said text messaging can help campaigns broaden their reach.
"You will reach about 10 percent more people, people you won't get by mail or other traditional methods, but you have to hold onto them," he said.
Oberman said mobile messaging may not be a critical element in the current race but may be at some point in the future.
"It's going to happen, maybe not this year, but it's going to happen in a way even the campaign doesn't expect," he said.