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Politics is Mobile, According to New Pew Report

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, December 23 2010

As much as 26 percent of the adult American population may have engaged with the midterm elections using their mobile phone, according to a study released today by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Online politics experts from both the Democratic and Republican parties say this is a sign of things to come, and it will significantly change the messages that candidates and campaigns send to potential donors or activists. As smartphones decline in cost and adoption rates continue to rise, people will come to engage in political activity on their mobile phones more and more frequently — meaning campaigns will be seeking mere snippets of time from supporters on the go, but they may gain access with an unprecedented level of immediacy.

While only one percent of adults contributed money to a campaign by text message, according to the survey, 14 percent used their cell phones to tell others they had voted, and 12 percent of adults used their mobile phones to track news about the election or politics. The 26 percent figure is an aggregate based on all the adults polled who did one of a range of politics-related activities on their phones.

The Pew study reflected what online and mobile messaging experts already know: People who make frequent use of their cellphone are more likely to be people of color, or 18-29 years of age, or making over $30,000 a year, or with at least some college education, or some combination thereof. But other Pew studies have found that adoption of new technologies like social media is accelerating fastest among older Americans — addressing the way mobile users skew younger — and smartphones are getting cheaper, which may make them accessible to lower-income Americans.

Mobile messaging expert Scott Goodstein, who was external online director for President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, closely watches the cost and capabilities of mobile devices. In my periodic conversations with him, he frequently brings up this or that phone for sale at a popular electronics store that a campaign can use to reach a constituent, such as play video or browse the web. Yesterday was no exception.

"You're talking about a phone that plays video, interacts with the web and can download types of applications into the phone, and cheaper than any type of Nokia or Motorola Razr flip phone," Goodstein said yesterday of a deal he saw in an electronics store circular.

But the level of engagement seen this year was already impressive. Compared to the 2008 presidential election, a watershed year for voter turnout, the 2010 midterms did pretty well in mobile engagement: In the 2008 election year, according to Pew, 29 percent of American adults said they used text messaging in the run-up to election day. That's not apples to apples with mobile in general, but it paints the picture.

Goodstein credited active Republican campaigns with mobilizing their constituents on their handheld devices, but National Republican Senatorial Committee online director Katie Harbath says some campaigns might not even know what they did.

"I actually think these campaigns were interacting with their folks mobilely and didn't know it," Harbath told me yesterday, later adding, "I think there was probably more interaction there via mobile than the campaigns know about because they're not looking at the data."

Harbath herself didn't even realize the extent to which Republicans were using their mobile devices until midsummer, when she noticed a big increase in mobile traffic and found that people were landing on donation thank-you pages via mobile. Her detailed analysis of mobile traffic for the NRSC in 2010 is already up on techPresident.

What a steady increase in mobile engagement means, Harbath says, is that campaigns will have to alter their calls to action.

"I think the asks have to be even shorter," she told me. "It needs to be even fewer clicks to make people do something, because the screens are so much smaller, and people don't want to take the time to fill out a long form."

Mobile politics, she surmised, will comprise the actions campaigns can get from supporters as they're in line at the grocery store or stuck in traffic.

"Campaigns [should] start testing and figure out what their activists are doing on mobile and how to work with them on it," she said.

The Pew study was based on a survey of 2,257 adults conducted from Nov. 3 through Nov. 24, 2010. It's available here.