Texting With Bernie, Andrew, and Joe

Using new technology, the Democratic presidential campaigns are sending millions of text messages to voters. Is that effective, annoying, or both?

A phone screen showing texts from 2020 presidential candidates
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by 31moonlight31/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

In June, I received a text from a number I didn’t recognize. The sender identified himself as representing Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign and offered me a free bumper sticker. I was tempted to take it, but I worried it was just a ploy to get my address. Instead, I asked him if he was using a platform that allows campaigns to send thousands of unsolicited texts within hours.

The sender’s response confirmed my suspicion that he was part of the Sanders campaign’s peer-to-peer texting operation. Peer-to-peer texting is a technology that campaigns and organizations use to send text messages to potential supporters and volunteers on a huge scale. With the help of these software platforms, volunteers can send out a thousand or so scripted texts per day asking recipients to donate or attend a rally. It might be, to the privacy-guarding phone user, pretty annoying. It’s also about to become a lot more prevalent.

A text conversation between the author and a volunteer texter for Bernie
Aaron Mak

Election tech experts are expecting voters to receive more texts throughout the election cycle going into 2020, as more campaigns take advantage of the technology. This is partly because outreach coordinators are finding that it’s a lot more effective to text people than to email or call them. The result is more personal—or “personal”—interactions between campaigns and voters. That can pay off in support and growing volunteer operations. It can also lead to some fruitless encounters—like, for example, with me.

Campaigns harvest voter registrations, location data, and prior voting histories to identify potential supporters and their phone numbers. They technically don’t need your consent to text you because of a quirk in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, a 1991 law aimed at curbing phone spam. The TCPA states that organizations using automated texting platforms need to get recipients’ prior consent in order to send them messages. Peer-to-peer platforms, in contrast, require the user to press send for each individual text. So companies selling this technology argue that even though a volunteer might be mashing the send button a thousand times, the process technically isn’t automated, and is therefore legal. Consumer advocates, on the other hand, see this as an evasion of the TCPA.

Sanders’ 2016 campaign had a big hand in helping peer-to-peer texting come to prominence.
Using a platform called Hustle, the campaign had a few thousand people sending up to 1,000 texts per day, ultimately sending 10 million texts over the course of the election cycle. Hillary Clinton’s campaign also tested out the software before building its own mass texting tool called Megaphone. (Prior to the 2016 election cycle, advocacy groups had used Hustle on a smaller scale.) Organizers found that it was effective for reaching out to younger supporters and turning people out to rallies. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Beto O’Rourke also relied on the similar platforms for their 2018 congressional runs.

As the 2020 race gets underway, complaints about these texts are already starting to spread:

Sanders’s 2020 campaign is again investing in the technology—as is just about every effort on the Democratic side—though it’s switched from Hustle to an in-house platform building off the open-source Spoke software. This year, software engineers on the Sanders campaign have been augmenting the texting tool’s capabilities, making it faster and more scalable. “The custom technologies our team has built, along with the distributed volunteer structures we use, have allowed us to run a mass texting program that’s simply years ahead of anything else out there,” the campaign’s national organizing director, Claire Sandberg, said in a statement. The campaign says it has sent more than 37 million texts during this cycle thus far.

The Sanders campaign’s confidence in its technical superiority is partly thanks to a new in-house program called the Multiplexer, which automatically sets up texting campaigns based on voter and volunteer data. The Multiplexer helps to set up URLs for events, build lists of phone numbers to contact, compile info to include in the text messages themselves, and assign tasks to volunteers—all of which makes the process more efficient.

But campaign tech is only as good as the volunteers who have to use it. After poking around campaign finance filings, I was able to find an online class through Teachable designed by Sanders staffers to train volunteers to use Spoke. There are two slide decks, a video, and a final quiz you have to get through before the campaign will admit you to its official Slack, where staffers and volunteers coordinate the texting operation. One slide offers a peak at how volunteers collect data based on responses:

A Teachable slide designed by Sanders campaign staffers to train volunteers
Teachable slide designed by Bernie 2020. Screenshot by Aaron Mak.

The class in part lists rules for volunteers using the platform, including “Be like Bernie: kind, warm, and respectful (no matter what!)” and “Any negative debating, mean spirited comments, sarcastic remarks, or conversing in bad faith will result in suspension and removal.” It also advises volunteers to never remove people from the texting list unless they explicitly ask, even if they have the wrong number. According to the looser reading of the TCPA that peer-to-peer texting companies espouse, campaigns aren’t legally obligated to stop texting you even if you explicitly ask. Yet, most campaigns have a self-imposed rule to do so.

Teachable slide for volunteers designed by Bernie 2020 campaign
Teachable slide designed by Bernie 2020. Screenshot by Aaron Mak.

As I was taking the class myself, I was struck by the conversation strategies that the campaign had for answering recipients’ questions. The campaign encourages volunteers to engage with people as much as possible in order to facilitate personal connections. Yet it also warns that there could be pushback:

Teachable slide for volunteers designed by Bernie 2020 campaign
Teachable slide designed by Bernie 2020. Screenshot by Aaron Mak.

The fifth point of the slide made me wonder what it would take for them to label me a “lost cause.” How long could I drag out a conversation before they decided to cut their losses?

The Sanders campaign had been texting me every 15 days or so at this point. It’s worth noting that I had entered my number into the volunteer list, which is generally for people who have voluntarily given their info to a campaign. This is different from the numbers they text to persuade people to support Sanders, which the campaign usually plucks from voter files and other sources. So the volunteers I texted with were mainly trying to recruit me to help out with canvassing or phone banking, not persuade me to vote for Sanders, which is the type of conversation most nonsupporters who haven’t provided their numbers to the campaign would have. In August, a Sanders volunteer texted me to ask if I would help out with phone banking. I asked her why Sanders implied that the Washington Post was being influenced by its owner, Jeff Bezos, to cover him poorly. I felt bad giving her a hard time, but it was interesting to see how she responded to my admittedly antagonistic tone. She eventually stopped responding because she felt that I was “escalating.”

I also entered my phone number and an Iowa zip code into every portal I could find on campaign websites for all the other Democratic candidates in an attempt to solicit peer-to-peer texts—again, this is different from receiving an unsolicited text from a campaign, but I hoped to see how each campaign would deal with a slightly difficult person on the other end. At one point, an Andrew Yang volunteer contacted me over text. I asked about the candidate’s proposal during the second primary debates to move people to higher ground as a climate change precaution. The volunteer insisted that this was Yang’s “joking way” of highlighting the impact of climate change. We went back-and-forth over what exactly Yang was joking about until the volunteer told me that “higher ground” was a metaphor, not a literal proposal. I asked what exactly the metaphor was supposed to represent, and the volunteer stopped responding. Around two weeks later, the Yang campaign came out with a climate plan reading, “Several other countries are already moving their populations to higher ground to escape the encroaching water, and America is likely to see communities needing to do the same.”

On Aug. 28, a volunteer from billionaire Tom Steyer’s campaign asked me to attend a webinar. I asked whether she was concerned that Steyer didn’t make the stage for the September debates. She didn’t respond.

Last Wednesday, someone from the Biden campaign reached out to me, but the volunteer insisted that we talk over the phone instead. During the phone call, he asked for my address so he could come visit me and talk face-to-face. Our conversation ended there. The Yang, Steyer, and Biden campaigns have not returned my requests for comment.

But each encounter was a reminder that in each of these cases, a leap in campaign tech is still resulting in two humans interacting—and that any successes will come down to a volunteer’s ability to rally enthusiasm via texting bubbles.

The risk of encountering an obnoxious texter notwithstanding, it’s obvious why campaigns want to text people en masse right now. There’s no form of digital communication that’s more intimate—or as frictionless. Companies in the space report open rates between 70 and 90 percent for campaign texts, far higher than that for emails or phone calls. You’ll likely start seeing more unsolicited texts during the debates and as the primary elections get underway.

But if you start to feel afflicted by all these texts, you probably shouldn’t try to stop them by antagonizing the volunteers. You can always just tell them you opt out.