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Texts From Barack: The Era of Cell Phone Fundraising is Upon Us

We’ve all gotten used to emails from Michelle, Barack, and Sarah Jessica, but starting soon, it will be our cell phones that we’re checking for those dinner invites. On Monday, the FEC allowed political campaigns, PACs, and super PACs to receive cash donations via text message for the first time.

There’s good reason to believe such impulsive texts could be a windfall for political campaigns; a January PEW study on text-message donations to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake found that three-quarters of the gifts were spur-of-the-moment and conducted without much deliberation. “Picture this,” says lawyer Craig Engle, who pushed the FEC to adopt the rule on behalf of telecom companies. “You’re at the Democratic National Convention. Someone’s up there giving a speech. Instead of that electronic American flag waving in the background—what if there were a short code up there?” And with donations capped at ten dollars per text, or $50 a month, the law is likely to profit the grassroots-oriented Obama campaign. (After all, Sheldon Adelson doesn’t give his donations in ten dollar increments.)

But it’s not really money that the Obama campaign, which lobbied the FEC to adopt the new rule, is after. Once telecom companies take a cut, the Chicago Tribune reported, campaigns will only see 50 to 70 percent of the donation. Rather, the real prize is a list of new cell phone numbers. “Five dollars a text isn’t going to go very far,” former FEC Commissioner David Mason told me. “The big thing about text-message communication is the opportunity to identify and re-engage that donor.” Identify, as in, use the cell number to look up the donor’s name and address. Re-engage, as in, mail, text or call the donor at will.

In other words, the instant communication goes two ways. In 2008, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo made the case for text-based campaigning, highlighting its low cost and effectiveness in getting out the vote. But to get those phone numbers, Obama had to rely on gimmicks, like pledging to break news of his vice-presidential pick by text message. If texting becomes a basic way to send small donations, the campaign won’t have to struggle to add numbers to its database.

If nothing else, a glut of new contacts means the specter of celebrity fundraising texts is looming. After a text donation, says Engle, “you are most likely going to get a reply from Obama for President which says ‘thank you’ or ‘visit our website’ or ‘text again.’ ” But knowing Obama for President, expect a more intimate tone. Emails from Anna Wintour are going to feel downright impersonal compared to actual texts from Hillary.