Secret Weapon

Will Text-Message Contributions Save Obama’s Reelection Effort?

Miranda Green on why an FEC ruling allowing political contributions by text message favors the president.

Jae C. Hong / AP Photo ; Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

In the summer of 2008, Barack Obama texted an estimated 3 million phone numbers to announce Joe Biden as his new running mate. The unprecedented move solidified cellphones as critical political tools.

Now the Federal Election Commission’s ruling to allow text-message contributions to political candidates again puts mobile technology at the forefront. Politicians and advocacy groups vow that the new technique will make doling out money easier for individuals and collecting money cheaper for candidates. And analysts say the real winner will be Obama, who will gain another edge in small-donor contributions.

“The opportunities are there for both candidates to gain equally, but the Obama campaign has a demonstrated record of success in using new technologies,” says Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative advocacy group. “And given what we know about Obama, he would benefit the most.”

The president’s team has built on the 2008 campaign by sending untold numbers of “personal” text messages to presumed supporters.

“My gut tells me that the Democrat side is slightly more advanced in using technology, and that has to do with list development and their cohesive early start,” says Alex Patton, a Republican campaign strategist. “They have been developing their list over the last six years, and [Mitt] Romney’s just now kicking it into gear.”

The FEC’s unanimous ruling last week opened the doors for political candidates to gather money through a single text message. Supporters will be able to donate between $10 and $50 a month when the service is up and running in the coming weeks.

“The simplicity of making a small contribution using a device that most of us carry in our pockets is the chief virtue of these contributions,” says Paul Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. “Not everyone is invited to big-dollar campaign fundraising events. This is a really low-cost way for candidates to engage with the average person.”

Watchdog groups advocated for the ruling, saying text contributions will give candidates more venues to raise money and let individuals play a larger role in campaign fundraising. Both the Romney and Obama camps also pushed for the use of the tool.

“If the Supreme Court did something on health-care reform that would be alarming for the president’s supporters, he can instantly text them asking for a $25 contribution to fight back,” says Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist. “It gives him the ability to leverage events instantly in a way that makes the appeal more urgent while increasing the likelihood of engagement … This just puts another weapon in his arsenal.”

That’s not to say Romney wouldn’t also benefit from the technology, but he lacks an existing arsenal of phone numbers and textable supporters. Gallup polls show that Obama leads Romney by a 35-point margin among voters age 18 to 29, the age group most likely to know how to send text messages. It is also the demographic more likely to utilize additional, innovative methods of donating to campaigns, such as through Twitter.

“It’s one extra tool that [Obama] will have that Romney doesn’t,” says Dennis Johnson, political management professor at George Washington University. “Text messaging is geared toward younger people.” Obama, he says, “has the database and the appeal to younger people.”

In 2008, 46 percent of the money Obama raised came from donations of $200 or less, according to numbers from the Campaign Finance Institute. For the 2012 race, Obama’s small-donor funds make up 43 percent of his total, while Romney’s sits at 10 percent.

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Supporters of the ruling say text-message contributions have the potential to bring in unlimited funds.

The FEC “just unlocked a new fundraising stream for easy donations,” says Mark Armour, president of Armour Media and a former Al Gore spokesman who helped bring the request to the commission.

Armour says the success charities had with using text donations to raise money for the 2010 Haiti earthquake shows how the system can generate vast amounts at the push of a button.

“If you look at what happened in Haiti, they raised $40 million in 10 days,” he says. “The potential is theoretically unlimited. It’s sound money, new money … It could quite easily be tens of millions of dollars.”

One pitfall: text contributions are capped at $10 each per message and $200 a person under FEC regulations. But political strategists say the benefits of text contributions will go beyond the initial funds that are collected.

“Once someone donates to a campaign, the campaign can then text them back, bring them into their Web interfaces, and involve them through the website where they can then donate more than $50,” Armour says.