Voters are hiding from us. They're blocking our digital ads, fast-forwarding through our TV commercials and hiding behind their cellphone call display. What's a campaign to do?
Driven by this new reality, many political organizers are turning to "peer-to-peer" communications tools. Rather than broadcast information en masse, these platforms rely on direct connections between individual people. Most often they're mobile-centric, targeting the smartphones now in nearly everyone's pocket or purse.
Many campaigners are familiar with mobile canvassing apps like MiniVAN or Polis, which put walk lists in the hands of field organizers and volunteers. By using technology to provide mobile scripts, maps and on-the-spot data entry, they make block-walking more efficient and effective. Functionally, they facilitate the peer-to-peer connection between volunteer and voter in the real world.
Other technologies stay in the virtual mobile space. They often rely on text messages, since people are far more likely to read a text — whether from a stranger or a friend — than to take a random call or open an email. One such tool, called Hustle, broke big in 2016 when the Bernie Sanders campaign used it to manage communications among field organizers and volunteers.
Hustle is designed to automate the process of people texting people. When a volunteer installs the app, a campaign can push contact lists to them, like a phone-banking application, but for high-speed texting. More significantly, the Sanders campaign also used it to help field organizers communicate with many volunteers simultaneously.
When someone signed up for volunteer shifts via the Sanders campaign website, they might get a text from a local field organizer via Hustle, the first in a regular stream of communications between them. By making it easy for organizers to talk with many people at once, Hustle helped field staff build relationships with local volunteers at scale. Did it work? After testing it in 2015, the Clinton campaign paid Hustle the great compliment of developing their own tool (Megaphone) with much of the same functionality.
Sometimes, even the candidates themselves get in on the act. When DeRay Mckesson ran for Baltimore mayor in 2016, Hustle helped him stay in touch with donors directly. How often does a small-dollar donor get a text straight from a candidate's phone? Big money shouldn't feel left out, though, since another platform — RevUp — connects a candidate's social network with donation and other data to optimize the process of dialing for dollars.
Other tools are taking the peer-to-peer idea and making it friend-to-friend. VoterCircle, which is run through a mobile website rather than an app, can tap into a volunteer's contact list and then match it against a voter file. From there, the campaign can ask the volunteer to communicate with high-priority voters directly via email, text, a voice call — or over a beer.
Similarly, the app-based uCampaign platform matches an individual person's contact list to a voter file and prioritizes their one-on-one connections based on data models. uCampaign also includes social-network functions, canvassing features and gamification techniques to encourage supporters to act on a campaign's behalf. In 2016, uCampaign worked with both the Brexit and Trump campaigns to find, mobilize and connect voters in communities where traditional campaign methods struggled.
Can peer-to-peer tools like these solve the problem of voter contact? The approach certainly shows promise. The trick, of course, is to be selling something or someone that voters actually want to buy. That part of the equation is on us, not the tools.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, a twenty-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com