Campaigns Aim To Reach New Voters Through Mutual Friends

Oct 17, 2020
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As predictably as BJ Leiderman does our theme music, elections bring endless political flyers to our mailboxes and yard signs and phone calls many Americans have learned to tune out. So as reporter Jeff Tyler explains, campaigns are now trying to reach out through trusted online friends.

JEFF TYLER, BYLINE: The conventional wisdom is that voters are motivated by issues, like abortion or the Second Amendment, but Andy Roo Forrest disagrees.

ANDY ROO FORREST: We think of ourselves as intelligent, rational humans who are examining ideas, but that's not what behavior science shows us. What it shows is that all of us are mostly influenced by role models and by our peer groups.

TYLER: Forrest is executive director at Feel Good Voting, a nonpartisan group drawing on years of research to promote voter registration. So far this year, around 24,000 people have used the voter tools on its website. It pays influencers like Oneya Johnson on TikTok for a shoutout and a link.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ONEYA JOHNSON: If you are 18 and older, I need you to go click the link in my bio and register to vote. I know a lot of y'all thinking, oh, I'm only one person. What is my one vote going to do? A lot.

TYLER: In Hattiesburg, Miss., 24-year-old Kam Tarvin was already planning to vote. But like a lot of new voters, she was uncertain about how to register.

KAM TARVIN: Boom - the video popped up, and I'm like, OK. And it was easy. I was thinking it would be hard, you know, 'cause I've never voted.

TYLER: Tarvin would be the first in her family to vote.

TARVIN: My grandma is 75. She's never voted. But I'm going to try to get her to vote as well.

TYLER: Again, Andy Roo Forrest.

FORREST: When we get a new voter to come in, to establish new behavior patterns, to establish new habits, it may be hard to reach them. But once we have helped them establish those habits, we may have them for decades.

TYLER: The concept of tapping friends and family for political campaigns, known as relational organizing, has exploded this year.

JACK FISCHER: In this election specifically, relational organizing is going to be one of the key tools that we use.

TYLER: Jack Fischer is a 20-year-old in St. Paul, Minn., working to get out the Democratic vote. He uses an app called Team. It harnesses the contact list in your phone to find people the campaign wants to talk to.

FISCHER: I would go in, and I would see that I have a contact. Oh, look; Jeannie Burlowski, my best friend's mom from, like, 10 years ago, is one of the people that I need to contact.

TYLER: He sent her a personalized message.

JEANNIE BURLOWSKI: So I got a text from Jack.

TYLER: Jeannie Burlowski is 58 and lives in Lino Lakes, Minn.

BURLOWSKI: This was a wonderful text to get. It felt warm. It felt inviting. It was far different from having a robotic text from a presidential campaign.

TYLER: They traded texts, and Jack helped her get information about early voting. Now that she has voted, I asked Burlowski if she planned to stay in touch with Jack.

BURLOWSKI: Oh, you bet. I'm going to let him know what I did. I'm also going to tell him how great I feel that he reached out to me about this.

TYLER: Relational organizing helped Democrats enough in the midterm elections that conservatives took notice. Minnesota state Senator Mark Koran is a Republican running for reelection.

MARK KORAN: When you look at the acceptance of that message being delivered from a friend, it's far more impactful and powerful than any elected official who's out door knocking. The stats show it's almost two times more effective.

TYLER: Koran uses a new app designed to get conservatives elected called SwipeRed. He hopes it will help him reach some of the 1.2 million eligible voters in Minnesota who are not registered.

KORAN: They're not accessible through traditional communication channels. And so I think the only way to get to them and try to break into that group is through their existing friend and family network.

TYLER: Koran still has time to mobilize friends of friends on SwipeRed. Minnesota allows voter registration up through Election Day.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Tyler. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.