GOTV Texting campaigns: How they work, how to get involved.

When I started volunteering for campaigns, way back in 2000 and 2004, the only options were in-person canvassing or phone banking. I drove 200 miles to a battleground state in 2004 to campaign for Kerry.  Sometime between 2014 and 2016, I switched over entirely to texting and this now the only kind of campaign volunteering I do.

I’m going to explain how texting campaigns work, and how you can get involved in one for 2020.

But I don’t have a cell phone.

That’s okay, you won’t need one. If you’re reading and commenting on Daily Kos, you can text using the same tools/setup. I generally work on a laptop.

Every texting campaign I’ve worked on has used one of three web-sites to text, Hustle, Relay or Spoke. If you volunteer, you’ll be given some training on the application they’re using. Then you’ll be assigned a shift. Depending on the campaign, this can be anything from 100 to 800 initial texts to send. Names, Numbers and initial texts are pre-loaded on the web-site. Your part is to send each text by pressing enter. This bit needs to be done by a human being, robo-texts aren’t permitted. 

Once you’ve sent all your initial texts, you wait for replies. Depending on the campaign, 5-20% of people you contact will write back. Since all text communication happens through a web-site, your phone number is never visible to the person your texting. You won’t be able to see their number either, campaigns generally hide everything but the first name from text volunteers.

When a reply comes in, you’ll fill out a survey for each reply, and if a response is required, send it (usually using a canned reply). Filling out the survey is nothing more than clicking a few check-boxes in the app. This piece is extremely important because the data gets fed back into the voter file the state/national party maintains.

What if I have questions while I’m texting?

Most texting efforts co-ordinate with volunteers via instant-messaging. You’ll almost certainly be asked to join the campaign’s Slack. This is where staff and volunteer organizers share updates, answer questions, provide technical help and hand out assignments. Slack will be your lifeline to the campaign. 

At different stages of a cycle, campaigns send texts for different reasons.

The most common objective is to ID voters. Here, we are trying to figure out whether we will want to contact them on or before election day to make sure they vote.

Most of our initial lists come from public voter registration records, but you’ll be surprised at how out of date it can be. People who haven’t voted for a Democrat in several cycles, may still be registered as Democrats. Accurate information gathered directly from voters is critical to eventual GOTV efforts and campaigns. I volunteered for campaigns in TX, MS and AL partly because I knew the voter files there were in bad shape. An effective text campaign can improve a voter file very quickly, gathering accurate data on hundreds of thousands of voters. This pays off in future campaigns, up and down the ballot.

Why do Democratic campaigns want to text?

Texting compliments other canvassing efforts because it can reach a younger, less reliable voter pool who may not be canvassed or respond to phone calls. And it scales. On election day, state wide races will send out well over 1M+ texts. A national campaign might do that every single day for months on end.

Remember the senate seat won by Doug Jones in AL? Behind that victory was a top-notch texting campaign with experienced volunteers from across the country turning out voters. We turned out tens of thousands of voters who wouldn’t otherwise have known about the special election. We turned out tens of thousands of Democrats who vote in presidential cycles, but don’t in other years, through gentle encouragement and one-on-one contact.

On election day, the only goal is to get voters to the polls. We’ll work to get polling location information to voters, and help voters who have trouble at the polls or need a ride.

How do I become a good texter?

As with any campaign activity, we need to remember this isn’t about us, it’s about voters and the campaigns’ goals. To be a good texter, you’ll have to understand the goal of the campaign and make that your focus. You’ll have to remember that you’re representing the candidate. On the Bernie campaign, we will often say “Be Like Bernie”, always respectful, always focused on making the world a better place for the many, not the few.

  • Use the canned replies: The pre-loaded responses are produced by volunteers and staff who’ve given it a lot of thought. They are constantly being tested and improved. Wherever possible, use those. It will also save you lots of typing. If you can think of a better response, share it on Slack, and if it’s really good, it’ll be uploaded into the software.
  • Don’t waste a lot of time trying to persuade: Campaigns are almost never looking to persuade. Most veteran texters will tell you it’s virtually impossible to change someone’s mind via text. The best we can do is provide some information to undecided voters. Arguing with contacts is  discouraged.
  • Do not feed the trolls: Most contacts are busy with their own lives and their questions will be to the point. What is the candidate’s position on X? Where do I go to check whether I’m registered to vote? You’ll quickly recognize trolls. Disengage gently and quickly. 
  • Never, ever get into arguments with voters: A small percentage of contacts will try to get you angry, you’ll get #MAGA responses. That comes with the territory. Use the canned responses and move on to the next contact. Do not take any of it personally. If a contact is abusive/rude, most campaigns will instruct you to opt them out.
  • Ask for help when you need it: Well-run text campaigns will have volunteer organizers dedicated to mentoring texters. Most campaigns will also have a dedicated team of volunteers reviewing all conversations with contacts, to provide feedback to texters and prevent problems.
  • Stay on top of your replies: Engagement drops off if contacts don’t hear back on a text within a few minutes. Try to respond promptly. If you’re going to be unavailable for a while, tell the organizers on Slack. 
  • Join Early: If you decide to volunteer a day before election day, you won’t have time to learn the tool, and no one will be in a position to train you. Prominent campaigns will often limit assignments to experienced texters close to election day. 

Why would I ever do this?

If you want to see real political change in this country, this is a great way to make a difference. You can do this kind of volunteer/organizing work from anywhere. You can help campaigns across the country, even from a deep blue state. 

It is more productive than arguing with people on Daily Kos or god forbid Facebook/Twitter.

It’s also fun to text with friends, grab a couple of your closest friends and host a texting party!

How do I get started?

I’m so glad you asked. The only campaigns actively texting at this point in the cycle are for presidential candidates. Go to the campaign website and sign up to volunteer. They’ll have a texting option. Here are a few links: 

Outside of campaigns, there are various groups organizing activists around issues. Here are the organizations I find interesting or have volunteered with at one time or another:

If you want to do work with the Mississippi, Alabama or Florida Democratic party, send me a note. They aren’t actively texting at the moment but there is other work they’re doing in the background and the distributed team organizers are always looking for volunteers.

Hope you found this useful, and maybe we’ll work together on a campaign this cycle.

— @subirgrewal