Mar 15, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Campaigns turn to texting as coronavirus spreads

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Peer-to-peer (P2P) texting is experiencing a massive uptick in political campaigns throughout the country now that in-person campaign activities and forms of voter outreach are being suspended to protect public health, P2P experts and campaigns tell Axios.

Why it matters: Campaign tactics like rallies, town halls, phone banking and canvassing are becoming harder to do as officials urge people to quarantine themselves and stay at home due to the coronavirus outbreak.

What it is: P2P texting has become the hottest way for political campaigners on both sides to increase voter engagement, mostly because it's not subject to the same regulations as automated texting.

  • P2P texts are sent individually from one phone to another — hence the "peer to peer" label. They are not regulated in the same way as SMS messages, which can be sent from one phone to many numbers and can sometimes be used to spam users.

Driving the news: "We're seeing an uptick in sign-ups," says Thomas Peters, founder and CEO of RumbleUp, a political P2P texting platform that enables volunteers to text voters, mostly for Republican campaigns. "Sign-ups are up about 200% in the last four days."

  • Peters says that demand is exploding organically. "That's not us actively talking about it, it's inbound demand."
  • "You're going to see an even further shift in dollars to texting because live events just are not going to be able to happen," says Chris Russell, co-founder of Checkmate Strategies, a consulting firm that works mostly on local New Jersey Republican races.
  • "For the last couple of days, text has been the primary way for us to communicate with delegates to make sure they know what's going on and to alert them about changes to rules and procedures," says Russell. New Jersey's statewide elections are in June.

Campaign event cancellations are expected to increase in the coming weeks.

  • Shortly after the Trump campaign initially told Axios that the coronavirus had not changed their plans, President Trump canceled events in Colorado, Nevada and Wisconsin.
  • Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have both canceled campaign events over coronavirus concerns and are moving to virtual events.
  • Congressional candidates also have begun adjusting. Kim Nelson, a Democrat running for South Carolina's 4th district, and Nabilah Islam, a Democrat running for Georgia's 7th district, canceled events.

Leading up to the special election for California's 25th district in May, Democrat Christy Smith's campaign "is moving towards prioritizing remote voter contact tools like texting with voters, at-home phone banking, and encouraging supporters to speak with their friends and family about early voting by mail," deputy campaign manager Kunal Atit told Axios.

  • Campaign staffers are now urged to work remotely, except when absolutely necessary to be somewhere in person. They've also canceled all events with 50 people or more, or made them virtual.

Campaigns are shifting their budgets to focus on campaigning via text message rather than in-person canvassing or having volunteers meet at phone banking centers, Peters said. "They can't have old people in a room making calls together, but people can text from home."

  • A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson told Axios the committee has strongly encouraged campaigns to do as much as they can virtually — using livestream video services in place of town halls and roundtables.
  • Texting, according to Peters, is one of the easiest and fastest ways that campaigns can send livestream links to targeted, local audiences about remote rallies and town halls.

The big picture: Campaigns have already been relying a lot more on texting this cycle than ever before, in part because it's an easier and more reliable way to communicate with voters about rallies and events.

  • The Trump campaign already has several million people signed up to be on its texting list, according to sources familiar with the campaign.

Yes, but: As more campaigns move to texting, self-serve P2P texting platforms need to be vigilant about making sure they don't become a vehicle for misinformation.

  • "I predict there's going to be an explosion in cut-rate P2P vendors trying to offer service," says Peters. "Phone carriers are already doing a lot to cut unknown actors getting messages through."

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