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The Pocket Campaign: Mobile Politics in 2012

BY Jack Harris | Monday, March 26 2012

Toronto mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi canvasses with an iPad in 2010. Photo: Rocco Rossi

A PDF of this report is available here.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
- The Integrated Campaign
2. Mobile Tech in the Field
- Mobile for a Smarter Campaign
- Voter Contact for Campaigns
- Door-to-Door Contact for Organizations
3. Mobile Messaging
- Mobile Advertising
- The Two-Way Campaign
4. Hype and Reality of Mobile Fund-Raising
5. All Politics is Local After All
Appendix: Reference to Tools and Companies


The past two years offer several fresh, new examples of how causes and campaigns willing to experiment with mobile technology reported back that they were rewarded with a network of more engaged, more empowered volunteers.

Last year, for example, activists fought tooth-and-nail in several states around ballot initiatives and recall efforts. In those fights, often for the first time, grassroots organizers began to ask volunteers to work on their phones and tablets. At the same time, candidates in 2011 local and congressional races took advantage of mobile tools and tactics that had been developed in higher-profile races in prior years, but had now become cost-effective for the small campaign.

When considering what mobile devices may enable in American politics and civic life, there’s much more to think about than what campaigns are doing. Privacy, surveillance and pricing are all worth deep consideration. But in order for people responsible for crafting the technology strategy for a campaign or cause to start wrestling with those issues, they first need an idea of what the use cases for mobile will really be. The presidential campaign of 2008 and many political skirmishes since have left politicos with many hypotheticals to ponder on topics ranging from fund-raising to ad placement, but only a few oft-cited case studies, like savvy use of SMS by Bob McDonnell in Virginia in 2009 and Scott Brown in Massachusetts in 2010, or Michele Bachmann’s targeted ad buys in 2010 and 2011.

Of course not all of those people who embrace new technology on their campaign go on to win — Rocco Rossi, who graces the cover of this report, had canvassers tote iPads as they knocked on doors and planned to launch a mobile app for volunteers. He came in fourth in his 2010 bid to be the mayor of Toronto, Canada — but he was one of a growing number of people using technology to make a small campaign more efficient. Another one of those people, Lori Compas, a Wisconsin business owner, leaned on mobile technology and simple tools like Facebook and Twitter in 2011 as part of a successful effort to trigger a recall election for a state senator.

This special report updates the tranche of examples of mobile technology's use in politics. Each one explores how mobile technology has become part of the organizing, messaging and fund-raising strategy of some tech-savvy causes and campaigns.

The Integrated Campaign

Mobile devices are now ubiquitous in the United States. Eight in ten Americans own a mobile phone, according to Pew Internet & American Life Project research; one in three own a smartphone. This has already changed the way Americans communicate. One in three phone owners and more than eight in ten smartphone owners have used their mobile device to send a video or photo. Cognizant of the Red Cross’ ability to raise over $32 million for disaster relief in Haiti in the weeks after the 2010 earthquake there — all through donations of $10 given by texting a shortcode — political and cause fund-raisers in the U.S. have lusted after the ability to tap similar tools for their own campaigns.

As campaigns begin to view technology in general with greater importance, mobile integration is coming along for the ride. Jeff Blodgett, founding director of Wellstone Action!, a national training center for people interested in progressive change, says that it’s very common today for most campaigns to hire a new media director in addition to a regular communications director, allowing them to have someone at the highest level within a campaign who can think about online and digital politics 24/7. That’s not limited to candidate campaigns, either. The Service Employees International Union, for example, has been hiring new media managers in key cities to work with leadership in locals there, developing digital strategies that support organizing.

To most people in communications or politics in 2012 — many of whom make a groggy swipe for their mobile phone to check email as their first waking act each day — the real-time campaign is not a new idea. But campaigns are still learning how to use a constant connection with voters — enabled by the same principles but hopefully not waking up would-be supporters in the early hours — to advance the cause of a state or local candidate or initiative.

Mobile Tech in the Field

Mobile technologies can make it easier for folks on the ground to do their jobs and for organizations to collect and manage the data generated by everyday activities. Whether through a custom-built app or via social media like Facebook or Twitter, a volunteer with a mobile phone can get — and give — real-time updates from the field.

For example, in 2011, activists in Wisconsin used mobile messaging to mobilize volunteers during the surge of recall efforts that sprang up there in response to Gov. Scott Walker’s moves against the right of public-sector workers there to bargain collectively with the state.

“Mobile phones with social media on them make every person their own communication center,” says Harry Waisbren, a social media analyst who has been involved with the movement in Wisconsin to recall Walker.

This was as true at the grassroots level as it was of actions organized by labor groups.

Lori Compas, a small business owner from Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, organized a recall effort against State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald in Wisconsin’s 13th District. What began as the use of a few common social media tools ended up with Compas using mobile apps to communicate on the fly with groups of volunteers in the field.

Compas was eager to help oust Fitzgerald from office, she said, and began “keeping an eye on the Internet to see who would file.”

After seeing no record of anyone filing the paperwork to begin a recall effort against Fitzgerald, Compas decided to start one herself. She filed the paperwork the same day the much broader recall effort kicked off against Walker in November 2011.

At the beginning, her effort was just a Facebook presence, Twitter account and Wordpress blog. It only took about two hours to get started. Even her husband didn’t know she was launching the effort until he came home from work that evening, she said.

“The technology supported the boots on the ground,” she said. With social media tools to point to, she was able to persuade volunteers already out to kick Walker from the statehouse to collect signatures against Fitzgerald, too.

Mobile advocacy also began to play a role in Compas’ organizing. She created a members-only Facebook page for dedicated volunteers, she said.

“Organizers would be on their phones as they pulled up to an apartment building, asking if anybody had been there,” Compas said.

Other organizers would be tagging volunteers and organizers on Facebook in real time — the Facebook mobile app can be configured to trigger an alert or a ringtone if the user is tagged in a post. All of this information would be piped back to organizers on the phone, said Compas.

There was no formal support for Compas’ efforts until a professional organizer from We Are Wisconsin came into the district towards the end of the effort and helped Lori’s group garner an additional 8,000 signatures on top of the about 12,000 already collected. To recall Fitzgerald, she needed just shy of 17,000. Despite limited prior experience in politics — Compas said her experience with politics prior to this had been knocking on doors for Obama — she was able to quickly create an ad-hoc activist group with the help of digital tools.

Mobile for a Smarter Campaign

Tim Tagaris is a longtime digital strategist for the left. Among his credentials are a top digital spot at Ned Lamont’s 2006 Senate campaign and a long stint, completed in 2011, as digital director at the Service Employees International Union.

Organizations collecting data “would do well to be more thoughtful,” he says.

“As organized labor, we talk to so many people, not just members, but on the doors, on the phones, on the streets, at events,” he said. “Look at all the money, time, effort [spent] on reaching people.”

“How much of an effort are we making to ensure that we are collecting email addresses and mobile phone numbers?” Tagaris asked.

“It’s a giant math equation. One million petition signatures to recall Scott Walker were dropped yesterday,” Tagaris said in January, as organizers were wrapping up the Walker recall effort in Wisconsin. “If we got 10 percent of the email addresses, we’d have 100,000 addresses of people already engaged. Likewise, 10 percent of the 100,000 people who turned out at the Wisconsin Capitol could yield 10,000 new email addresses and mobile phone numbers.”

For Blodgett, who was also the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s campaign manager, the biggest change to the political landscape since the 2008 elections is the access to, and quality of, voter files.

Political groups hope to improve the accuracy of that data by using mobile technology as they collect them in the field. By 2008, the Democratic party apparatus and its supporting groups had built a mechanism for constantly accessing and updating voter files that centered around two companies: VAN, now part of NGP VAN, which provided enhanced voter file access to campaigns and parties through its own software; and Catalist, which catered primarily to left-leaning or outside groups. That’s been the primary model since 2008, and Blodgett says it’s been durable.

“There’s been a continual expansion of Catalist and VAN,” he said.

The expansion has been driven by the constant addition of voter data. As organizations like America Votes do voter contact, they collect information from state voter registration databases and combine it with notes collected by activists and staffers as they go door to door or make phone calls, keeping tabs on voters and supporters throughout the course of a campaign. Not only are these tables available to the organizations that created them, they become accessible to all the organizations around them that are allied and aligned.

“Really good modeling can happen from good records collected over time,” Blodgett said.

As a result, campaigns will get better and better at figuring out exactly where their most likely voters are — and the next allied campaign will have less work to do. With lists at the ready, organizers can spend more of their time talking to targeted voters at their doorsteps about the issues that matter to them.

“Handheld devices allow you to show the latest TV ad on the doorstep of a supporter,” Blodgett said. Wellstone Action! recently provided a grant to Minnesota Clean Water Action to buy iPod touches for their canvass team, he said via email.

He added that iPads can serve as a device to show an ad, a clipboard from which to launch a survey, and an opportunity to instantly sync a voter’s updated information — after her contact with the campaign — back to the campaign’s database in real-time.

Voter Contact for Campaigns

Jason Ascher managed one of New Jersey’s most competitive state legislative races in 2011 and has seen the evolution of mobile technologies at the state and local level over the last three years. (Disclosure: I worked on this campaign, in New Jersey’s 14th district, as a part-time, paid canvasser for State Sen. Linda Greenstein and Assemblymen Wayne DeAngelo and Dan Benson.)

In 2011, as part of an integrated campaign for these three incumbent state legislators in New Jersey, Ascher began working with the technology firm Grassroots Unwired to equip canvassers with BlackBerry mobile phones. This allowed paid canvassers to deploy quickly without paper lists, and on some canvass shifts for the campaign, to switch “turf” — the portion of the district each canvasser was responsible for covering in the course of going door-to-door — mid-shift by simply downloading new lists. Ascher and other staff could also track each canvasser’s progress in real time.

All targeted districts in New Jersey used this technology, Ascher said. Grassroots Unwired used lists from Catalist to build specific applications targeted to the district, which canvassers used at doorsteps to do voter identification. The lists, scripts, and surveys all deployed in Blackberry for the canvasser.

In Massachusetts, Scott Brown’s campaign manager, Rob Willington, was also an early adopter of mobile technology for field operations. As Brown’s get-out-the-vote operation exploded ahead of his phenomenal victory in the 2010 special election for the Senate seat left vacant by the late Ted Kennedy, lines began to form outside each of Brown’s ten regional offices. At each location, people waited for the chance to knock on doors on Brown’s behalf. The Saturday night immediately prior to the election, one volunteer stayed up late, uploading the campaign’s GOTV universe — the data on all the voters the Brown campaign wished to turn out on election day — into a format accessible via an experimental iPhone, Android and smartphone campaign app.

That technology has evolved since. A firm called Political Gravity has licensed software to the Tea Party group FreedomWorks that's designed to put lists of likely Republican voters on the mobile phones of supporters, along with maps to bring them from door to door. FreedomWorks is loading the software up with lists of voters in select races and encouraging volunteers who use its social network, Freedom Connector, to put it to use on behalf of candidates the organization supports.

Organizations on the right and left have been competing for years to come up with the best strategies to use technology to make voter contact more efficient, developing new database software, strategies for targeting and even organizational structure to share information while staying within the lines of election law. But organizations that aren't working on elections are trying out mobile technology to streamline door-knocking, too.

Door-to-door Contact for Organizations

Working America, a community affiliate of the AFL-CIO that represents non-unionized workers in suburban and exurban communities across the country, has recently deployed iPads to streamline conversations at the door between the Working America canvassers and the unorganized workers that they're hoping to recruit.

Working America canvasses in 10 states and have just begun rolling out iPads to their canvass teams. The rollout is fairly new and results haven’t been released yet.

The heart of Working America’s virtual clipboard is a customized instance of the MiniVAN mobile application, which VAN released in 2010.

“Everything we do with technology comes from the perspective of how we can better enable the canvasser to have a better conversation at the door,” said Max Toth, the director of information systems at Working America. “Anything that is a barrier to that is a no-go.”

Canvassers take down contact information during these encounters, and the goal of the iPad virtual clipboards is to streamline this data entry as well. As canvassers collect this, a tool from Google built into the MiniVAN application suggests an address in the contact form for the would-be member to verify — another light touch added in the hope of creating a streamlined conversation with someone who might become a member, and then, possibly, a volunteer, or even a community leader.

Mobile Messaging

Mobile Advertising

From Campaigns and Elections to Mobile Marketer to Fast Company to the Brookings Institution, many have shared and re-shared anecdotes about Michele Bachmann’s 2010 mobile ad targeting Minnesota State Fair goers with the message that her opponent, Taryl Clark, wanted to tax their corn dogs. The 2010 ad targeted attendees within a two mile radius of the fair just as the fall election season kicked off.

Bachmann also used geotargeted ads during the Iowa straw poll last August during her abortive presidential run, and Romney’s campaign has also said they bought targeted mobile ads in Iowa and New Hampshire ahead of caucuses there.

Katie Harbath, formerly the online director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, found in 2010 that not only were voters making use of their mobile phones on election day to find their polling places, but that mobile ads were cheap — at the time, nobody was bidding on those ads — and says she believes that campaigns should focus on strategies to reach voters on their hand-held devices.

Paying attention to these mobile stats is important, Harbath says, because the NRSC in 2010 saw mobile traffic to its website increase from 3 percent of total traffic in July to 10 percent by election day in November. It was enough to motivate her to test out mobile ads in the hopes of reaching more people on their phones — and she reported that her experiment paid off.

In 2010, she wrote:

I had a theory that on Election Day that more people would be using their phones to find where to vote than their computers and I was right. We ran ads for people to find their polling place in all the states with key Senate races. For the entire week mobile accounted for only 25.5% of all the clicks, but on Election Day that switched to where our mobile ads got a 6% higher click through rate than their desktop counterparts and were 39% cheaper. A whopping 65% of impressions and 67% of the clicks on the polling place ads were from mobile on Election Day, and the best performing keyword for mobile, voting locations, had a staggering 20% click through rate.

Combined with other mobile strategies — at a Brookings Institution event in February about mobile messaging in politics, she highlighted the way the Republican National Committee sends supporters text messages with links to online videos — Harbath says there's plenty of evidence that digital outreach should be a core part of political campaigns, and reaching people on their mobile devices, with advertising and otherwise, should be a part of that outreach.

Scott Goodstein, CEO of Revolution Messaging and former external online director for the 2008 Obama campaign, sees an evolution in mobile towards more two-way communication and “civic education” where people can feel connected to the campaign by being able to text back.

“People are demanding more from their phones,” Goodstein said in February, at the same Brookings event. “Mobile has grown up and advanced from the novelty of text messaging. People are going be upset if they join your mobile network and there’s not breaking news of what’s happening.”

The Two-Way Campaign

Mark Serrano, CEO of the strategic communications firm Proactive Communications, believes that “more campaigns are learning how to drive coalition building through social media and learning how to integrate blogs, online video messaging, social media and mobile into campaign strategies.”

“The principles haven’t changed since the 1980s,” Serrano says, “It’s the scale, the scope, and the speed.”

Those political parties and advocacy organizations that pay attention to the ad-hoc organizing efforts of people across the country and that capture the data generated from these efforts will be well positioned to hold more meaningful conversations with supporters and likely voters — converting those potential supporters into actual ones.

Four years later, Obama’s 2008 campaign is still the model that holds as the leading example of this kind of supporter engagement, said Wellstone’s Jeff Blodgett.

“In 2008, Obama broke new ground building a strong technological organization on top of an innovative technological infrastructure,” he said. “They kept supporters engaged and allowed them to talk back to the campaign.”

Despite the fear of losing control which is endemic to any campaign, the Obama campaign “got over it.” It set a precedent that any campaign must follow if they hope to emulate Obama’s 2008 success.

“Supporters,” Blodgett said, “expect a two-way conversation.”

Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts in the January 2010 special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s vacant U.S. Senate seat was powered in large part by successfully leveraging volunteers and localizing a nationalized election. In a 2010 conference call hosted by Personal Democracy Media, Brown’s campaign manager, Rob Willington, stressed the importance of data collection, especially cell phone numbers, as part of the everyday activities of the campaign. Willington was able to develop 7,500 text message subscribers in this shortened campaign by promoting a shortcode across the breadth of their social media, field and communication efforts.

By promoting the text message number at the end of ad spots, as part of clickable banners in online ads, and on yard signs in the real world, Brown's campaign built a list of people who opted in to receiving texts. Whenever Martha Coakley made a talk radio appearance, the campaign would ask members of that list to call in and ask her unfavorable questions. The campaign also used this list to mobilize friendly audiences for Brown’s own appearances on talk radio.

Localizing the election with text and online ads also enabled the campaign to organize around the ten campaign offices spread throughout the state. This enabled the campaign to better leverage off-the-shelf social media like Ning and Facebook, generating local action that freed up the campaigns regional field directors and other staff as the campaign gained national attention.

By the end of the campaign, the Brown team had cultivated 7,500 text subscribers, 7,366 members of local “Brown Brigade” volunteer groups on Ning, received pledges from 3,000 supporters to bring out 34,000 of their friends and family to vote, sent out 215,000 emails, and raised $12 million dollars in online donations.

Ben Goldfarb managed Amy Klobuchar’s winning 2006 Minnesota U.S. Senate campaign and was a senior advisor on Al Franken’s victorious 2010 Senate campaign. Goldfarb believes that “the biggest changes in mobile politics are not technological,” but “in the way in which people can take on leadership and ownership in the campaign.”

“The ability of data to move and for information to move breaks down the expectation that you need a brick and mortar location to make that happen. You can now act from anywhere. That simply wasn’t true five or 10 years ago,” Goldfarb said.

Mobile technologies allow supporters of a candidate to campaign from their own homes and on their own time. Supporters can download phone lists, walk lists, use click to call tools and access a campaign’s talking points without physically having to ever go to a campaign office. One thing they still can't easily do through their phones is give money.

The Hype and Reality of Mobile Fund-Raising

Campaign professionals have long relied on Internet politics as a core part of their strategy, especially in reaching small dollar donors. The hope is that mobile fund-raising will take this to the next level by enabling campaigns to reach donors in real time as they actively engage in a campaign event — attending a house party, a rally or phone bank, or knocking on doors — and allows fund-raising to be integrated with volunteer and field operations.

This became more desirable for campaigns after 2010, when the Red Cross raised over $32 million for disaster relief in Haiti in the weeks after the 2010 earthquake there. By sending a text message to a Red Cross shortcode, a mobile phone user triggered a $10 donation. Now, non-profits have solutions at their disposal to collect money via SMS. But campaigns, the Federal Election Commission and mobile carriers have yet to work one out. In politics, the closest many have come are mobile-ready websites, like one launched by ActBlue in 2010, that bring online fund-raising to web-enabled phones — but that's really taking a web experience and putting it on a mobile device.

“One of the big questions for political campaigns, advocacy groups and labor is cracking the question of raising money via mobile devices and making it a very simple user experience,” says Tim Tagaris, the progressive digital strategist.

A real solution for mobile fund-raising remains elusive — but there has been movement in this area in 2012. For example, the Romney and Obama campaigns have begun deploying Square as part of their mobile fund-raising strategies. The company sends users a small credit card reader that plugs into the headphone jack of a mobile phone or tablet; its software works with that device to process credit card transactions on the go, at a fee of 2.75 percent per transaction. Staff from both campaigns have said they put Square to use at campaign events, collecting donations more efficiently than with old-style card readers and without setting up a laptop station. Custom Square apps for each campaign were launched to collect FEC-required data from each donor, such as their employer and occupation.

All Politics is Local After All

Mobile devices and applications help supporters to become engaged on their own time, and sometimes in their own way. Mobile politics itself isn’t revolutionary, it’s simply an extension of the digital campaign environment that has been developing over the last decade. What’s different about mobile politics is that it moves what were traditionally precinct organizing activities to the phone, and enables neighbor-to-neighbor communication to more easily move from densely populated cities and first-ring suburbs to less densely populated suburbs and exurbs. This move benefits both Republicans and Democrats by making it easier to reach supporters on their own turf and in the environments in which they are most comfortable.

While the Obama campaign is seen as both the benchmark and the innovator when it comes to linking community engagement and digital technologies (including mobile), the Scott Brown campaign showed what mobile can do when it comes to suburban politics. Brown’s use of mobile freed up limited staff resources in a special election, where time is even at more of a premium then it is during a regular campaign, and enabled supporters to self-organize. This allowed more people to hit the doors, make phone calls and even call in to challenge Martha Coakley on talk radio. All these activities helped harness local energies to national support and enabled the campaign to build a strong ground effort and turn-out suburban supporters.

Many campaigns and the media are still focusing on mobile advertising and mobile fund-raising activities — but the ballot initiative fights of 2011 and Brown campaign in 2010 show that campaigns have used mobile devices to augment traditional campaign activities.

Here are four simple things to take away from this report:

  • Simple tools can work: Lori Compas' Wisconsin effort to recall Scott Fitzgerald used relatively simple tools, like Facebook and text messaging, to keep volunteers connected without a costly campaign infrastructure.
  • Campaigns are putting more screens at the doorstep: Using tablets and smartphones during get-out-the-vote and voter identification efforts is allowing campaigns to update data on voter contact in real time.
  • Campaigns are reaching people on their mobile device: As more people check their phones on the go, politicos are seeing increased value in trying to reach them there with mobile ads and text messages, such as ones that contain links to web videos.
  • Supporters' phones are not ATMs: Campaigns and organizers are racking up story after story of ways in which they were able to leverage action from supporters by reaching them through their phones. Trying to raise money from people on mobile devices, however, remains a difficult proposition for political campaigns.

The 2012 presidential campaigns are staffed with veterans of 2008, the 2010 midterms and the 2011 ballot initiative fights, all of whom used mobile messaging in their campaigns or saw it used by the other side. There will be new variations on these themes, and possibly even wholly new uses of mobile phones introduced. But the core reality of the pocket campaign remains that the new ubiquity of smartphones gives even more power to the individual volunteer and voter. Candidates and causes that learn how to harness that may be able to make more efficient use of volunteer time and get more bang for their campaign buck.

Appendix: Reference to Tools and Companies

Mobile Applications

Grassroots Unwired — Uses mobile devices to provide real-time lists, scripts and data to canvassers that feeds to a back end database and mapping system that allows campaign managers and field directors to track canvass operations in real-time. Work primarily with Democratic candidates.

Walking Edge — Smartphone app developed by the Republican Development Group, a consulting firm created by three former high level McCain presidential staffers. Walking Edge provides canvass lists to canvassers with smartphones with GPS applications to enable them to knock on nearby doors without having to work through a pre-defined walk list.

FLS Connect — FLS Connect actually provides a broad suite of tools for Republican campaigns that not only allows supporters to call and id voters, but also provides personalized messaging and call center services, data management tools and services and fundraising services.


ActBlue — ActBlue enables individuals as well as campaigns to quickly setup fundraising sites for candidates or issues. ActBlue can collect money directly from contributors and are focused on up-to-date FEC compliance.

Square — Adapted by the Obama and Romney campaigns for in-the-field mobile contributions, Square allows contributions via credit card, anyplace anytime via a mini-card reader that plugs into the fundraisers mobile phone.

Backend/Resource Management

NGP VAN/MiniVan — Founded in 2001, The Voter Activation Network’s (or VAN) bread and butter is the development, management and enhancement of voter files for Democratic and progressive candidates, issue campaigns and allied organizations. VAN was an early developer of apps for mobile devices, their MiniVan application came out of these early experiments. The 2010 merger of VAN and NGP brought together NGP’s expertise in fundraising and compliance with VAN’s voter file, field management and volunteer coordination expertise.

Catalist — Provides combined voter file and demographic information for Democratic and progressive candidates and organizations. Catalist provides both data and analytic tools.