Marla Hohner was at home in Dallas when a text message arrived from an unfamiliar number.“Hi Marla,” it read. “This is Nate volunteering w/ Beto For Texas. Beto O’Rourke is running for Senate to represent Texans statewide, not special interest megadonors. And unlike Ted Cruz, Beto doesn’t take any money from PACs. Can we count…
Marla Hohner was at home in Dallas when a text message arrived from an unfamiliar number.
“Hi Marla,” it read. “This is Nate volunteering w/ Beto For Texas. Beto O’Rourke is running for Senate to represent Texans statewide, not special interest megadonors. And unlike Ted Cruz, Beto doesn’t take any money from PACs. Can we count on your vote?”
Ms. Hohner, a senior adviser for a financial firm, was puzzled. She had heard of Mr. O’Rourke, a Democrat running against Mr. Cruz in November. But she had never volunteered for his campaign, given him money or agreed to be contacted by his volunteers.
“It felt like a real invasion,” she said. “My first reaction was, who is this? How do they know my name? And how did they get my cellphone number?”
Welcome to the age of the political mass-text. Candidates in this year’s midterm elections are still sending mailers, putting ads on TV and knocking on doors to drum up support. But they’ve added a new, hard-to-ignore tool to their arsenal: personalized text messages sent to voters’ phones.
announced he was picking Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. as his vice-presidential candidate with a text to supporters of his campaign. In 2016, both Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump used text messages to raise money, promote local events and get voters to the polls.
But this year’s campaigns swear by a new breed of “peer-to-peer” texting apps that allow them to carry on thousands of individual text conversations, keep track of replies and answer questions from voters in real time. The phone numbers often come from political groups that sell or share voter data to campaigns.
Automated bulk text messages — the kind sent by pharmacies and airlines — are strictly regulated. Users are required to opt in to receive them, and organizations can be fined for sending unsolicited messages.
Peer-to-peer texts appear to be unregulated because they are sent individually. Even if a program automates the process of choosing a recipient and filling a message with canned text, a human user has to press send on each message.
“It’s not a blast communication,” said Caitlin Mitchell, the chief mobilization officer for the Democratic National Committee, which is using peer-to-peer texting in hundreds of campaigns this fall. “It lets you have a genuine two-way conversation with voters.”
In May, the P2P Alliance, a trade group representing peer-to-peer texting apps, asked the Federal Communications Commission to clarify that the services were not subject to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, a law that prohibits using automated dialing systems to contact mobile phone users without permission. Peer-to-peer texting, the group wrote, is “an exciting technology that facilitates real-time communications that consumers want and expect.”
A spokeswoman for the commission said it had not decided on the issue, and would seek public comment first.
used it to organize volunteers during the Democratic primary, and Democrats in particular seem to be racing ahead with their plans to use the technology.
Volunteers for Stacey Abrams, a Democrat running for governor of Georgia this year, have sent more than 1.2 million text messages. Senator Doug Jones, the Democrat who prevailed in last year’s special election in Alabama, set up “texting banks” that sent 1.4 million texts to voters during that race. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose long-shot primary campaign defeated Representative Joseph Crowley, a 10-term incumbent in New York, used the texting app Relay to help drive voters to the polls.
Roddy Lindsay, the chief executive of Hustle, a start-up that helps organizations use peer-to-peer texting, said the texting method “gets back to the heart of what campaigns do, which is talking to people and winning hearts and minds.”
Victoria Nadel, a volunteer for Mr. Jones’s campaign last year, used the Hustle app to reach Alabama voters, reminding them to vote and where their nearest polling place was. Hustle automatically supplied each text message with a name and a number. All she had to do was hit send — which she did, hundreds of times a day.
“It’s the best tool right now for getting out the vote,” Ms. Nadel said.
Text messages are not free — most peer-to-peer platforms charge 10 to 30 cents per conversation, with discounts for large clients — but they are less expensive than printed mailers and appear to be more effective than other communication methods. Hustle, which is used by many Democratic campaigns as well as groups like Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club, says texts sent through its platform receive responses at twice the rate of phone calls, and 36 times the rate of emails. Opn Sesame says 90 percent of text messages are opened within five minutes.
All this texting seems to translate to dollars and votes. According to internal tests done by the Democratic National Committee, voters who received text messages through Hustle as well as printed mailers donated to campaigns at an 8 percent higher rate than voters who received only mailers. And campaign officials said voters who received texts on Election Day were more likely to show up at the polls.
“We saw an increase in turnout amongst the communities we reached out via text message during the primary election,” said Priyanka Matha, who runs communications for Ms. Abrams’s campaign in Georgia.
reported receiving text messages that attacked two Republican candidates for governor, Randy Boyd and Bill Lee. The sender of these messages is unknown, and it is unclear whether these messages came from a peer-to-peer texting app or were sent another way.
And not everyone appreciates the conversations. One Twitter user in Georgia posted a screenshot of a message she had received from a volunteer for Ms. Abrams’s campaign, asking if the campaign could count on her vote in November.
“When hell freezes over!” the voter wrote back. “Lose my number!”
Cain Rodriguez, 29, a theater artist in Dallas, said he had gotten dozens of text messages from Mr. O’Rourke’s Senate campaign. The messages were annoying, but he admitted they were probably effective.
“I understand why it’s an important tool for them,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “You can’t ignore a text message.”