Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Texting 'Bout My Generation

By Shawn Healy
Hannah Berkman of Briarcliff Manor, NY, penned the following piece on the use of text messaging by the 2008 presidential candidates. I have written extensively about the use of new media in this election, and Berkman's piece is further evidence of this phenomenon. In several email interviews Berkman forced me to think about the utility, boundaries, and authenticity of text messaging as a form of outreach to supporters.

“OMG, Hillary 4 president is so cool ; ).”

Hillary Clinton was among the first presidential candidates to announce plans to send voters text messages such as this one, now listed on her campaign website.

“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,” she said in a news release. “This is an exciting step forward that I hope will continue our conversation with voters in a new format.”

More than 18 billion text messages were sent in the United States in December 2006. In December 2005, less than 10 billion text messages had been sent. This growing popularity of text messages hasn’t excited only phone companies, though.

Political campaigns are grasping the potential these numbers represent. The impending presidential election includes three front-runners who use text messaging to reach out to the general public.

Sens. Clinton, Obama, and former Sen. John Edwards have all enacted plans to incorporate text messaging into their campaigns.

Obama’s new media director, Joe Rospars, said text messaging is just another addition to the already multi-faceted campaign.

“That’s the game here- to innovate on all fronts,” he told the Chicago Tribune in July.

Shawn Healy, McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum’s resident scholar, said that technology has become a major component of elections.

“Howard Dean’s 2004 run for the Democratic nomination showed how technology can make a relatively unknown candidate a legitimate contender,” he said. “His campaign’s use of a blog, meet-up technology, and online fundraising set the standard for the entire 2008 field.

“Campaigns will continue to seek out every and all techniques that might contribute to their own success, catapulting them above opponents stuck using more traditional methods.”

New York State Assemblyman Mark Weprin said technology enhances political campaigns because candidates can communicate more directly with voters.

“Every candidate wants to have as much contact with voters as possible, and text messages allow candidates to conveniently reach many more voters than they could by knocking on doors or shaking hands,” he said.

Text messages from presidential candidates generate excitement and elicit support. They provide the cell phone user with information from the campaign trail, sometimes including pictures, and are sent only to those who have signed up for the messages.

Some, such as those sent by John Edwards’ camp, provide the voter with a simple way to donate money. According to an article published by the Chicago Tribune, Edwards’ supporters can press one button upon receiving one of his text messages to be connected directly with a fundraising representative.

Robert Shapiro, professor of political science at Columbia University and co-author of Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness, cited the fast pace of text messages as an advantage for those who use them.

“Text messages facilitate quick communication,” he said. “There is a personal and quick aspect to it that will be helpful.”

Healy agreed that the intimacy of text messages will benefit those candidates who take advantage of it.

“Politics has always been about the personal,” he said. “Such intimate forms of contact only enhance the connection between candidates and potential voters.”

Text messaging also provides politicians with an inexpensive mode of communication. Text messages on average cost 10 cents each to send— a small price to pay in comparison with the millions candidates spend on television advertisements.

According to an AP-AOL-Pew study released in 2003, people between 18 and 29 are more inclined to use the “special features” their phones offer. A Telephia study published in The New York Times in August reported that this age group sends as many text messages as phone calls, averaging in around 300 of each per month. These statistics account for the focus of political text messages on the younger demographic.

New York Times congressional correspondent and political writer Jeff Zeleny said politicians are still unsure of whether the focus on a younger audience will affect the outcome of the election.

“The use of text messaging certainly is directed to a younger audience,” he said. “The big question, though, is this: Will it make younger people actually vote? The campaigns hope so, by getting people involved and by making them feel as though they are part of a larger movement or a greater purpose.”

Assemblyman Weprin described the attention to this demographic as potentially rewarding for candidates.

“Young people represent future voters, so establishing relationships with them early on is good planning,” he said. “And the young voters who have chosen to receive text message updates from candidates may choose to share their excitement with friends, potentially increasing support at the ballot box from those who do not usually vote.”

Robert Calvert, professor of political science emeritus at DePauw University and former elected member of the Greencastle, Ind. City Council, described younger voters as more susceptible to technological campaigns because of the environment in which they grew up.

“Such a device will appeal to younger persons, or at least the less intelligent or more media-conditioned among them,” he said. “We’re talking, after all, about a generation that by and large has been virtually raised on modern media, TV, certainly, and now the Internet.”

Calvert also said that the focus on younger voters will hurt candidates’ appeals to older voters. He said that older generations may see text messaging as a “blatant, even cynical appeal to the vulnerable ‘kids.’”

Georgetown University political science professor Joanne Rappaport put it bluntly. She said she would find political text messages “terribly invasive.”

“If I got any, I would erase them immediately,” she added. “Maybe younger people would welcome them, but I don’t.”

For now, candidates send text messages only to those who have signed up to get them.

Political text messages provide candidates with a way to speak to voters that is “essentially not a public form of communication,” according to Calvert.

“To be sure, the appeal to younger voters is by means of technique, not substance,” he said.

Calvert worries that political text messages cross an unwritten line.

“There should be a certain ‘civil distance’ between a candidate and voters,” he said. “The candidate, as potential office holder, can and should properly address constituents in their public roles, not as private persons. Such personal intimacy and the ‘friendship’ it implies is quite out of place in our politics.”

Healy said this ‘intimacy’ will help politicians in the polls.

"Voters tend to select candidates with whom they feel most comfortable, not with whom they agree with on specific issues,” he said.

The campaigns of Clinton, Obama and Edwards did not respond to calls regarding what Calvert described as a breach of barriers.

Calvert said avoiding being swayed by the use of the new technology would take a mature younger voter who “recognizes the transparent gimmickry involved- who thinks like an adult.”

For now, this specific use of technology is being exhibited primarily by Democratic candidates. Several Republican candidates, though, such as former Gov. Mitt Romney have expressed interest in following suit. Mindy Finn, his campaign director of e-strategy, told the Chicago Tribune he will begin using text messages “very soon, at a time that makes sense,”

“It’s a long campaign,” she said.

The Democrats are ahead with text messaging because of Howard Dean’s failed 2004 presidential campaign. It was known for taking advantage of the Internet to manage fundraising. Many advisers who had been responsible for such work are working other in different presidential campaigns, specifically those of the Democrats.

According to Calvert, the Democratic Party has been more inclined to appeal to younger generations since the student rebellion of the 1960s.

“The young rebels of those days were nothing if not alienated from the ordinary political process, which they regarded variously as simply corrupt, a mere tool of the ‘establishment,’ or ‘irrelevant,’ as they dismissively put it,” he said. The Democratic party of 1972 then tried to attract the “rebellious young” of the era and since has emphasized the importance of youth in party support.

Calvert said the recent increased use of technology will change American politics.

“It will further the transforming of American political campaigns into calculations of what will interest this or that segment of the populace, often at the expense of other segments, rather than a periodic effort to frame issues with an eye to the public good,” he said.

“It’s crashingly obvious that such a high-tech culture goes hand-in-hand with high socio-economic status.”

Healy added that this division goes further than social status, though.

“I know that poor people are less likely to vote than their more affluent peers,” he said. “I also know that the so-called digital divide, while it still exists, is narrowing. The same trend holds for education. Those with more education are increasingly likely to vote. Campaigns work with the knowledge that only the most committed voters turn out in the primary elections and caucuses of the presidential nominating process.

“Given limited resources, they are wise to focus their energies on those most likely to vote. Wealthier and more educated voters fit this profile.”

As to the future of text messaging in political campaigns, most agree that the trend will continue.

Professor Richard Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Winning Elections, said text messaging will grow even more popular among political campaigns at all levels, starting with Congressional campaigns in 2008.

“The only thing that would prevent its future use would be strong negative feedback,” he said. “Otherwise it is cheap and capable of being precisely targeted. It could work out very well for politicians.”

Such politicians are hopeful about the continuation of political text messages.

“Because they are inexpensive, easy to produce, and provide a direct contact with voters, text messages and other communications that make use of new technology are likely to increase in popularity in the coming years,” Assemblyman Weprin said.

Zeleny foresees an even greater usage of technology in future elections.

“Text messaging will surely continue to evolve and improve in political campaigns, paving the way for techniques that we can’t even imagine today,” he said.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

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The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

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