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All Those Texts You Receive From Political Campaigns Actually Work

According to new research, people who get texted are one percent more likely to vote.

Posted on August 6, 2019, at 10:49 a.m. ET

Nortonrsx / Getty Images

Buoyed by a new crop of texting apps, political campaigns in the 2018 cycle embraced SMS as a get-out-the-vote tool. New research suggests that the hundreds of millions of texts campaigns sent really did boost voter turnout — and that means you’ll get even more in 2020.

A report by Tech for Campaigns, an organization that provides proprietary technology and a network of more than 11,000 tech worker volunteers to assist Democratic candidates, found that voters who were texted by a campaign were 1% more likely to vote than those who were not.

Tech for Campaigns based the report from data collected running text campaigns on behalf of 25 Democratic candidates across four states: Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and North Dakota. Data scientists at Tech for Campaigns matched the telephone numbers they texted against public voter information to arrive at their conclusions.

“Texting does work, especially when it comes to get out the vote,” Jessica Alter, a founder of Tech for Campaigns, told BuzzFeed News.

The results are not definitive—correlation doesn’t equal causation. But compared to political ads on television and social media, texting lets campaigns serve ads directly to individual voters. (So, potentially, do email campaigns. But as marketers have long known, recipients read and respond to texts at a much higher rate than emails.)

A one percent difference in likelihood to vote may seem small. But the 2016 presidential election swung on about 100,000 votes in a handful of Rust Belt states—President Trump won Michigan by 0.3 percent. And state legislative races sometimes come down to hundreds of votes.

These findings forecast an even more frequent use of texts by campaigns in the 2020 cycle. Using peer-to-peer apps like Hustle and GetThru (formerly Relay), such text campaigns can draw on enormous lists of registered voters, skirting bulk texting regulations because human users individually press send on each message. Since the texts come from real people, usually volunteers, they often lead to engagement from the recipient — a gold standard in a world of ignored direct mailers and tuned-out TV ads. Indeed, people who responded to texts were nearly ten percent more likely to vote than people who didn’t respond.

When Tech for Campaigns broke down turnout rates by age, the effect of texting was even more pronounced. Voters between 27 and 50 were nearly 8% more likely to turn out to vote if texted. (Voters from 59-65 were about 0.5% more likely to vote, and voters between 66 and 72 were about 1% less likely to vote if they received a text.)

The people who Tech for Campaigns texted received two different kinds of messages: Issue-based texts that directly addressed topics like healthcare and the environment, and non-issue texts that informed recipients of practical details like polling place hours and locations. According to the report, people who received the issues-based texts were more than 8% more likely to vote than those who received the non-issues texts.

“You can’t just text,” Alter said. “Content matters.”

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.