Will mobile help Democrats tip the election?

It is puzzling that the Republicans haven't embraced mobile as thoroughly as the Democrats have in what is likely to be the most historic presidential election in a generation.

The Democrats' candidate, Senator Barack Obama, has run a highly envied campaign using a heavy war chest to unleash wave after wave of television commercials, mailers, radio spots, Internet ads, emails and text messages in addition to door-to-door outreach. But it is his mobile effort that is the cynosure of all eyes, political and marketing.

"A presidential campaign is about as high- stakes, high-dollar and high-visibility as marketing gets -- it's not a place to experiment," said Nic Covey, Chicago-based director of insights at Nielsen Mobile.

"Ongoing mobile investment by the Obama campaign should send a clear position to brands and agencies: mobile is no longer an experiment," he said.

Site to behold
The mobile site for Sen. Obama even beats most marketers' efforts with its focus, slick message, ease of use, tight menu and eye-catching colors. The site at http://m.barackobama.com or http://obamamobile.mobi has candidate appearance updates, news, video, ringtones and wallpaper downloads.

That mobile site and the call to enroll for text message alerts by texting keyword HOPE to short code 62262 (spells OBAMA) are also promoted prominently on the candidate's traditional Web site at http://www.barackobama.com.

Currently on the site is a posting for Sen. Obama's white paper on healthcare. Visitors are urged to sign up to receive a copy by email.

The site also asks visitors to encourage their friends to join Obama Mobile, as the site is called.

Contrast that with the Republican contender's effort. It is hard to find a visible call-out on Senator John McCain's Web site at http://www.johnmccain.com for mobile signups. Visitors have to click several links to reach that destination.

Which is a surprise given that the Republicans are noted for their grassroots, database-mining and talk radio efforts, and text messages, if nothing else, have proved an excellent vehicle for grassroots and get-out-the-vote efforts, as Sen.Obama's early primary victories showed.

"Politics is an ideal market to lean into mobile -- everyone is a customer," Mr. Covey said. "Mobile is an ideal platform for politics -- it is as engaging and personal as this particular content demands.

"That a presidential campaign would put critical time and money into what some still consider an exploratory medium endorses the mass-potential of mobile marketing," he said.

Biden time
The enthusiasm for Sen. Obama's mobile efforts brings back memories of Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean's Internet fundraising efforts in his failed 2004 presidential bid. Both candidates relied on channels that enabled direct communications and fundraising.

In Sen. Obama's case, the mobile enthusiasm has taken everyone by surprise. His campaign sought to keep the excitement going during the vice presidential nominee process by asking supporters to sign up to be the first to receive the news via text message.

When some mainstream publications managed to leak the news ahead of time, the Obama campaign was forced to send the text message declaring the Democratic running mate choice was Senator Joe Biden.

Sent late at night or early in the morning depending on the time zone, that message was texted to 2.9 mobile phones nationwide. It was billed as the largest mobile marketing event in U.S. history -- not just political, but overall.

Of course, the Obama vice presidential pick SMS doesn't compare with Russia, where all mobile subscribers were said to have been texted to vote in the recent elections for the country's prime minister. Former president Vladimir Putin won.

Nation first, mobile next?
So, why have the Democrats taken to mobile in ways that Republicans haven't?

"When you consider youth and the urban skew, it makes sense that Democrats would be slightly ahead of Republicans in terms of mobile media use today," Mr. Covey said.

"While I'm not sure either party is fundamentally more equipped to leverage mobile's capabilities, Democrats have an edge in that their base is more inclined to the medium today," he said.

Nielsen Mobile research supports the thesis that mobile media was slightly more popular with Democrats than Republicans in the second quarter of this year.

Per that research, 62 percent of Democrats are data users who use one or more data services on their mobile phone. The figure for Republicans is 55 percent.

The market researcher found that Democrats likelier than Republicans to use text messaging, 53 percent versus 46 percent.

Also, Democrats are more likely to use picture messaging and MMS than Republicans, 27 percent versus 21 percent.

As important, Democrats are likelier to use the mobile Internet than Republicans, 17 percent compared to 13 percent.

These are the findings of but one market researcher. A deeper dig might certainly disclose that Republicans too have mobile leanings.

After all, the conservative-inclined Drudge Report news aggregation site attracted a mobile Internet audience of 567,000 unique users a month, per July estimates from Nielsen Mobile.

Still, the Democratic-leaning CNN News' mobile site was the most visited among all news sites, attracting 4.83 million unique users in July. Its CNN Politics sibling mobile site on the mobile Internet alone attracted 1.2 million unique visitors, up threefold from a year ago.

News is not just consumed on the mobile Internet.

According to Nielsen Mobile's recent Mobile Video Report, more than 680,000 mobile video users are estimated to be interested in seeing more political and government coverage over mobile video.

A numbers' game
All political parties nationwide should not lose sight of the growing influence of the mobile channel on consumer and business decisions. Nielsen Mobile data bear that out.

As of the second quarter of this year, 43 million mobile subscribers use the mobile Internet, 33 million get text alerts, 32 million use instant messaging, 29 million download wallpapers or screensavers and 4 million directly subscribe to and watch mobile video, with more accessing that content over mobile sites.

Industry estimates peg the number of mobile subscribers nationwide at about 255 million, almost level with India and half the size of China's mobile subscriber base.

These numbers speak to the growing maturity of mobile as a mass outreach tool, both for marketing and political purposes. The Obama campaign has understood that in ways the McCain effort hasn't -- at least based on the evidence of mobile media promotion and outreach.

"Whether Republican or Democrat, marketers should visit Obama's mobile Web page and take note of the critical interactivity and breadth of content," Mr. Covey said. "Obama WAP site has stuff. Lots of it.

"Marketers should also sign up for Obama's short code and watch how this campaign uses SMS as a tool to drive brand evangelism," he said. "It's not a one-way conversation -- it's a dialogue that is calling supporters, customers to action."

Red crossed
However, given the newness of the channel, not all political mobile efforts may succeed at first blush.

Both the McCain and Obama campaigns urged the nation last month to text in $5 donations to the American Red Cross for the hurricane-hit Gulf Coast. Good intentions met poor execution.

A glitch in the text-messaging process frustrated many donors who had to call in their donations to the Red Cross after failing to receive the correct text acknowledgment for their efforts.

Perhaps it was a problem with the text-messaging platform or an inability to cope with the crush of mobile donations. But it certainly showed that mobile marketing on such a scale needs a thorough dry run.

The 800-pound gorilla in mobile's room, though, is whether a cult of personality is fueling the mobile enthusiasm toward Sen. Obama, or is it the ease of the medium to help a campaign in its voter outreach and fundraising. Man or mobile?

In fact, observers would be hard-pressed to name another candidate, congressional or across states, counties and cities, where mobile has played such a key role in rallying the troops.

"Obama's is a test case," Mr. Covey said. "It should be easy for this campaign to track return on their short code and mobile Web efforts, both of which are interactive.

"If the medium can impact their get-out-the-vote efforts this year," he said, "I expect to see mobile campaigning refined in the next senatorial and gubernatorial elections between now and the next presidential election."