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More than 80 percent of American adults own a cell phone. And as Americans increasingly rely on these devices to communicate, political campaigns and pollsters are scrambling to find new ways to engage potential voters in the palm of their hand. Tech Tuesday explores how mobile technology is changing voter mobilization and fund-raising.
- Scott Goodstein Founder and CEO of Revolution Messaging, LLC; External Online Director, Obama for America (2008); Co-founder Punkvoter.com and Rock Against Bush (2004)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 in Washington and from the studios of the Groundcrew in Charlotte, N.C., welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. We're here for the Democratic National Convention, and this Tech Tuesday, we're exploring new frontiers in political organizing. Later in the broadcast, we'll find out why some data crunchers think they can predict how you'll vote based on the music in your playlist, but, first, a look at how and why the election is coming to your smartphone.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFour years ago, Barack Obama's online operation changed how modern campaigns think about the Internet, raising cash at a record clip and compiling a massive list of 13 million email addresses. This year, the battle for digital supremacy is expanding to the mobile Web. Both campaigns are launching their smartphone apps. They're optimizing their content for smaller screens, and they're experimenting with text messages to get out the vote and raise money.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut some worry these powerful tools are also being used for shadier purposes, like suppressing the vote or disseminating misinformation. Joining us now from the studios of WAMU in Washington is Scott Goodstein, founder and CEO of Revolution Messaging, a company that works with progressive- and Democratic-aligned campaigns. He was a top official in Barack Obama's online campaign operation in 2008. Scott Goodstein, thank you for joining us.
MR. SCOTT GOODSTEINGreat. Thanks for having me on the show.
NNAMDIOf course, you too can join this Tech Tuesday conversation by sending us a tweet, @kojoshow, make sure you use the #TechTuesday, calling at 800-433-8850, sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or going to our website, kojoshow.org, and asking a question or making a comment there. Scott, allow me to start with a blast from the past. In the summer of 2008, you were a young operative in the campaign of then-Sen. Barack Obama.
NNAMDIAt the time, the most selling phone in the United States was the Motorola Razr. The iPhone was only one year old. Today, more than half of all Americans own a smartphone, and many people use it as their primary means of accessing the Web. Last week, a senior executive at AT&T told us in Tampa that his network has seen a 5,000 percent increase in data traffic over 2008. How have those changes affected political communications, Scott?
GOODSTEINYeah. I mean, it's so amazing that, you know, even my firm over the last three years has, you know, been rebuilding and retooling the way that we're even thinking about mobile apps. The mobile Web has greatly increased. You know, it's almost impossible now to buy a cellphone without mobile Web enabled. You are way more worried about the amount of text messages you receive because people didn't know how many text messages they had in their plans. And now, you have, you know, essentially everyone having an almost unlimited text message plan with their cellphone.
GOODSTEINAnd so, you know, the ability to use two-way communications through text messaging, mobile ads, mobile advertisement, mobile video has greatly changed. And then increasing -- you're starting to see the use of mobile apps with -- or mobile Web using the GPS location-based services from the different phones. All of this, you know, was just coming on to the market in 2007 when we launched Obama mobile. And if you remember back in '07, we launched Obama mobile with ringtones and wallpaper. And right now, you know, the ringtone and wallpaper business in the U.S. has long since retired.
NNAMDIIndeed, when you were working on these issues for the Obama campaign, apparently, there was a sense that they wanted things that technology could not achieve at that time. Tell us about what some of those things were.
GOODSTEINSure. I mean, you know, the dream that David Plouffe had back in '08 was that a young canvasser would knock on your door, and, you know, that person may ask a canvasser a question that they just weren't aware of the exact answer. And so could you actually download or show that, you know, person at the door conversation a video directly from your phone? The problem back in '07, '08 was that you would have -- the ability to, you know, download a very, very small video file, you'd have to wait until it downloaded.
GOODSTEINYou couldn't tell if the video file was Barack Obama speaking about health care, or it could have been my uncle, based off of how bad the resolution was. And, you know, today, HTML5 has become the universal video language for all mobile phones. And so the problems of being able to download and watch video in real time, that dream is easy to achieve with, you know, literally a few clicks of the button on your phone.
NNAMDIIs that why HTML5 is now so important for those of us who are not programmers?
GOODSTEINYeah. I mean, a lot of mobile websites were still built in Flash, and Flash just didn't work on mobile phones. And Adobe, the company that made Flash, has retired it since then, I think, within the last year. And HTML5 is the programming language of today. You know, folks, like my folks, parents are in Cleveland, Ohio, that, you know, are trying to download on a bad website, and it's broken on their tablet or on their phone. It's because those features were still built in Flash.
GOODSTEINAnd so, you know, companies like mine and others are definitely pushing people to make sure that their website is mobile friendly for the upcoming elections. This is important for congressional races to state Senate races to not be building their websites in Flash.
NNAMDIIt's Tech Tuesday, and we're talking about mobile mobilizing for election 2012. Our guest is Scott Goodstein. He is the founder and CEO of Revolution Messaging. That company works with progressive- and Democratic-aligned campaigns. Scott was a top official in Barack Obama's online campaign operation in 2008. 800-433-8850, have you used your smartphone to access information about the candidates?
NNAMDIWe'd like to hear from you. Have you donated to campaigns through your cellphones? 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Scott, you mentioned that four years ago, we were talking about custom wallpaper and ringtones for cellphones. Today, we're talking about mobile apps. Is this an evolution from essentially selling things to now creating things that people can use?
GOODSTEINYeah. I think that you've seen mobile go from very simple forms of can I get a message on my phone to now thinking about how can I organize or how can I be a smarter consumer? How can I very quickly, while I'm out canvassing, figure out, you know, are there two or three other support houses? Is there something else in the area?
GOODSTEINYou know, thinking about smarter GPS devices, if, you know, the millions and millions of American consumers that are using mobile apps, like Yelp or Open Table, to find where to dine, they should also be able to find out very quick information about their politicians before voting. So they should be able to come up with where your early vote location is. You know, it's more consumer driven demand at this point than, oh, it's a novelty that I have a smartphone, and I'm, you know, excited about, you know, checking out a new app.
NNAMDIIs that one of the things that your company, Revolution Messaging, is doing as it works directly with advocacy groups aligned with Democrats? Is that how you're using these tools, like messaging?
GOODSTEINYeah. Messaging at this point now can get very sophisticated. You know, when we were first looking at text messages to young voters, the last thing you wanted to do was just send them a one-way press release and say, you know, hey, check out, you know, this rally-this-Saturday-type message. We now want to be able to ask for feedback. We do quick information polling of your supporters.
GOODSTEINWe've partnered with polling firms, like Celinda Lake, Greenberg Quinlan, you know, some of the other sort of top Democratic polling firms, to be able to really sort of focus on what is it that your membership is interested in, what is the response from the convention, what are responses from the debates, really understanding two-way communication.
GOODSTEINAnd then now, using mobile for the first time this cycle as a persuasion technology, we can now put out mobile video and mobile advertising doing very, very smart geo-fencing and other types of technology that just wasn't there. Mobile advertising in 2008 was in such a small infancy that, you know, I wouldn't even say that it was crawling yet in 2008.
NNAMDIYou talked about what you do with polling groups. What do you do with groups like the NAACP or labor unions?
GOODSTEINYeah. So NAACP is very robust on their text messaging platforms around different issues, around the death penalty, you know, Trayvon Martin, Troy Davis. People wanted rapid-response information. They wanted to know what they could do and how they could take action locally. And so now, you know, being able to text in and find out, is there a rally that's happening close to my home, not four hours away, is something that, you know, we can now give that information in real time. So things like that are, you know, critical.
GOODSTEINLabor unions have really evolved on their mobile platforms so much so that one of the smaller unions that we work with, International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, is actually doing a modern-day hiring haul through texting in all the different skills in their unions' crafts.
GOODSTEINAnd, you know, whether you're a painter, a glazer, a drywall finisher, et cetera, you can actually text in. We're putting their members back to work by using text messages, the only device that's with people, you know, 18 to 24 hours a day. People can still go around. They can go around their daily lives. They can take their kids to school this week, and they can still be up-to-date on when there's job alerts in their area.
NNAMDIIf you've been using your smartphone to access information about the candidates or to learn more about who they're running against, just call us at 800-433-8850. Let us know how it's been working for you. Scott, right now, most polls of the presidential race show a dead heat between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.
NNAMDIBut some pollsters believe that the methodology of these polls may be undercounting Obama support because most polls are conducted by phone, and they skew heavily toward landlines. And Democrats, it would appear, are less likely than Republicans to have a landline. Does that comport with what you're seeing?
GOODSTEINYeah, especially around the work that we did with NCLR, NAACP around hard-to-count voters around the census these past few years. There's definitely a working-class America that, you know, some are between the ages of 18 and 35 that use their mailbox only for really bad things. You know, if I think about, when I go home at night, what's in my mailbox, and it's probably, you know, either a traffic ticket and maybe, you know, some advertisements for home repair types things. I pay all my bills online. You know, I move regularly.
GOODSTEINAnd this is the same with the, you know, hard-to-find voters, you know, folks that move regularly, move back home, things like this that, you know, are not checking their mail. So you now have one house that has four phones, very different demographics.
GOODSTEINEven for union households, you know, you may have dad is a union member, three kids, and each one has a phone. Not each one has a computer, so being able to target messages very specifically and being able to use the phone as a persuasion device based off of the video games you're playing, the mobile apps you're downloading or the news sites that you're going to can be very different for every single person in the home.
NNAMDIAnd if you happen to live in D.C., you now know that the traffic tickets can outnumber the junk mail. We're talking with Scott Goodstein.
NNAMDIHe is in Washington at the studios of WAMU 88.5. He's founder and CEO of Revolution Messaging, a company that works with progressive- and Democratic-aligned campaigns. He was a top official in Barack Obama's online campaign in 2008. 800-433-8850 is the number you can call to join this Tech Tuesday conversation.
NNAMDIThe -- both Romney and Obama have created their own apps for smartphones. Romney was supposed to reveal his vice presidential pick through his app, though that information apparently leaked before the official announcement of Paul Ryan. The allure for users is some sort of -- kind of insider angle on what's happening in a campaign. But aren't the campaigns themselves getting valuable data from these programs, Scott?
GOODSTEINYeah. And, quite frankly, you know, I was also a victim of, you know, mainstream news breaking it before I was able to send a text message out to our supporters four years ago. I just think that the power of Twitter and journalism still beat all the technology in the world on these vice presidential announcements. That being said, I do think that it was a giant mistake for the Romney folks to do such a high lift of a mobile app to announce their VP, right? You got to go in to the iTunes store. You got to download the app.
GOODSTEINYou're not getting as much data, and then you're getting data. And the drop-off for that thing had to have been ridiculous. If I was them, I would have probably done a text message sign-up, very, very quick, simple. Sure, it had been done before. But, you know, the Republicans just don't have that size of a text message list and could have built a much larger, rapid response gateway than sort of going after the mobile app as a really, really high bar for somebody to download.
NNAMDIWell, the Obama 2012 app raised some eyebrows because of a new feature that some people found, well, kind of creepy. Apparently, the tool can tell you whether your neighbor is registered as a Democrat or not. Tell us about that.
GOODSTEINYeah. You know, it was an honor for a team of volunteers in 2008 to actually build the first Obama app that would actually have you spin through your address book and call your neighbors and ask them to get out and vote. I think that now what the Obama team has done in evolving that into, you know, matching it back against a voter file, you know, this stuff has all been legal and available for years. Now, it's just available literally to neighborhoods in the palm of their hands.
GOODSTEINSo in case I'm not going to go down to my local courthouse to see, you know, how everybody on my street is registered and do my own get-out-to-vote method, you know, this is modernizing the old party system and the old party ward system of, you know, somebody handing you a piece of paper of all the Democrats in your street. Now, you don't need to wait for a party bus. You can just go and do this yourself by downloading an app, organizing a bunch of your friends, buying a little bit of pizza for everybody and seeing if you can get more people in your neighborhood out to early vote.
NNAMDIBut some people found it a little creepy, as I mentioned earlier, because they felt like they might have been outing their neighbors. But as you pointed out, that information was always availably -- available publicly. It's now just more convenient. On to the phones. Here is Alec in Leonardtown, Md. Alec, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALECHi. I just want to say I'm a big fan of the show, and also I'm a big person on Tumblr. I like to use the website to kind of catch up on the news of the day. It's kind of my supplement to Twitter. It lets me get more in-depth with what's going on and get more content. And I wanted to say that both campaigns, the Romney and the Obama campaigns, have a presence on tumblr.com. And it's kind of interesting to see in terms of the number of notes each of them gets, kind of discussing whether they have an effective social media strategy or not.
ALECAnd the difference is kind of stark 'cause the Obama campaign regularly gets, you know, hundreds and hundreds of notes. And on the Romney campaign's posts, it's funny 'cause they get, you know, on occasion, they've gotten above 20. And it's kind of hard for me to see how they can expect to compete with a youth demographic that's on these type of websites if they don't have a big presence on these websites or an effective one.
NNAMDIThat's interesting to me, Scott, because back in 2008, you were also tasked with figuring out those then-relatively new social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter and Myspace. In the context of Alec's question, I'm curious about how the strategic thinking about those tools has shifted.
GOODSTEINYeah. I mean, if I had the same job today of sort of building out a portfolio of social media sites, Tumblr would definitely be one. Pinterest would definitely be involved in there. Each one of these social networking sites has a little bit different of an angle. And I really think it's up to, you know, the campaign to figure out what is it that they can actually do that ties back to organizing. We were very effective in 2007, 2008, creating 50 separate state Myspace pages because we were getting actual volunteers into each of the states off of Myspace.
GOODSTEINAnd Facebook back then was limited. You couldn't have more than 5,000 friends, you know, and, you know, that definitely limited the campaign until Facebook allowed you to have way more. I think that Obama, last week, did something really interesting using a very small social network called Reddit and used it in a way where he had a conversation. And that spurred more conversations about the Obama campaign on Twitter and on Facebook all because he went in and did a dialogue on one of these social networks that's a lot smaller but reaches a very, very specific demographic.
NNAMDIIt's pretty much iron law of technology and innovation on the campaign trail. Somebody comes up with a cool, new tool for some sort of positive mission, like using automated telephone calls to increase voter turnout, and pretty soon, somebody else figures out how to use it for something underhanded and unethical. Robocalls, for instance, to suppress the vote or spread misinformation. You're worried that text messaging could end up, or indeed, is already being used to suppress the vote. Can you explain that?
GOODSTEINYeah. Our firm, you know, phones lit off the hook in 2010 when different congressional races were being attacked by very, very specific text messages showing up on their phones with negative messages towards one candidate or the other. And they were done by Americans in Contact PAC. You know, 2011, we saw the same thing. And in 2012, even in the Republican primary in Michigan, Mitt Romney himself was being attacked by an outside group using these text messages.
GOODSTEINAnd what we dug into and really did a lot of research on is the fact that these aren't just sort of happening randomly, that it's very sophisticated. You're matching a voter file against undecided voters or light-leaning voters, and you're going off the scientific theory that if you really bother a lot of these folks, they're just going to stay home. And so this form of modern suppression of voters is what's really scary.
GOODSTEINAnd, quite frankly, it's just saddening that, you know, we were using text messaging in 2008 to get more people involved in the process, to get young voters to be excited to, you know, reply to messages and find out where their early vote location was or ask questions and get answers. And now, these are coming from anonymous sources, and, worse, they're actually costing consumers' money because they're showing in a form of a text message that if you, you know, don't have a plan or you outdid your plan, it's definitely still costing you some type of money.
NNAMDIScott Goodstein is our guest. He is the founder and CEO of Revolution Messages. We're going to take a short break. And when we return, we're going to ask Scott to wear a different hat as a former DJ. By the way, where did you get your start as a DJ?
GOODSTEINAt WVAU, the sister station of WAMU at good old American University.
NNAMDIWow. Who knew? He's an activist in the music world. And we'll explore the link between politics and music and what campaigns can learn about our voting patterns from our playlist, but, first, this short break.
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