WASHINGTON - When former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina speaks at a presidential campaign event, he often pulls out his cell phone and asks his supporters in the audience to do the same. When hands holding phones shoot up, Edwards urges his listeners to send his campaign a text message.
When supporters of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., want a new way to express their enthusiasm for him, they can go to his Web site and download a ring tone for their phone. Then, whenever someone calls them, their phone will play a clip from one of Obama’s speeches, or it will emit a cheer: “Go! Go! Go! Obama! Obama!”
With cell phones increasingly becoming all-in-one tools, campaigns are looking for ways to turn text messages into votes and the sometimes-annoying interruption of a cell phone ring into a campaign message. But political analysts conceded that with a medium so new, it is unclear how effective these mobile campaigns will be.
Not that that stops candidates from trying. Obama, Edwards and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., all have text messaging efforts, and several Republican campaigns are considering it.
“That’s the game here - to innovate on all fronts,” said Joe Rospars, new media director for Obama’s campaign. The campaign offers text-messaging, seven different free ring tones and four versions of cell phone wallpaper with Obama’s face or logo on it - in addition to the campaign’s Web site that allows users to create profiles, blogs and event invitations.
Joe Trippi, a senior adviser to the Edwards campaign, said cell phones will be increasingly important in the 2008 campaign. Trippi headed Howard Dean’s campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2004, which was notable for its innovative reliance on the Internet for organizing volunteers and donors. That Dean campaign has seeded tech-savvy operatives among today’s Democratic campaigns.
Dean alumni are “scattered across a whole host of campaigns that are determined to outwit each other on the Internet or mobile or whatever the platform is,” Trippi said. He suggested that the presence of former Dean staffers in the Democratic campaigns is one of the reasons that the Republican frontrunners lag behind the Democrats when it comes to use of technology.
Mindy Finn, the director of e-strategy for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, agreed that Republicans “are somewhat behind” in Web and technology campaigning, in part because the Democrats developed a staff that was interested in new types of campaigning during the primaries for the 2004 election.
But she said the Romney campaign would launch text-messaging “very soon, at a time that makes sense. ... It’s a long campaign.” Trippi said that the lag might hurt the Republicans come 2008. “Really aggressive competition is creating a much bigger grass-roots movement on the Democratic side,” he said.
Trippi, author of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything,” said that the strongest impact of mobile phones will come not from the campaigns, but from that grass-roots movement.
“It’s not really what comes from the campaign that matters anymore,” he said, citing YouTube videos that were passed from friend to friend, or the possible power of receiving multiple messages from friends urging attendance at a political rally.
That doesn’t mean that the campaigns are not producing their own content. The Edwards campaign recently used cell phone messages to urge people to contribute funds, allowing users to press one button to hear Edwards’ recorded voice asking for a donation or another that connected them to a volunteer who facilitated over-the-phone donations. Hillary Clinton’s campaign used text messaging to announce her campaign song.
Polling suggests that younger people are most likely to use their cell phones in innovative ways.
A survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in April 2006 found that while 65 percent of cell phone users ages 18 to 25 used text messaging, that number dropped to 37 percent for ages 30 to 49. The same study found that 54 percent of English-speaking Hispanics used text messaging, while 42 percent of black and 31 percent of white cell phone users did. Those in the youngest age group were also the most likely - at 85 percent - to change their ring tones or cell phone background.
Germani Hardeman, 20, a junior at Spelman College in Atlanta, said she would “definitely” download the Obama ring tone. But Brianna Eaton, who just graduated from Rocklin High School in Rocklin, Calif., and has joined groups supporting Obama on the social networking site Facebook.com, said she thought the ring tones were “rather stupid” and would rather see the campaign focus on substance.
The campaigns stressed that they recognized that, when it comes time to vote, technology is not going to win elections. Peter Daou, the Internet director at the Clinton campaign, said technology is merely one more tool to allow supporters to organize and communicate.
“It’s not about the bells and whistles,” he said.