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The cellphone may end up defining the 2012 election the same way TV defined John F. Kennedy’s victory in 1960. The little device most Americans won’t go anywhere without has not only changed the way politics happens, but has also become the perfect symbol of the politics of the right. Whether the cellphone ends up representing inclusiveness and diversity or a vacuous bitterness will tell us a lot about where America is headed.

The first and most profound way cellphones are changing American politics is through polling.

“We think the polls this year seriously underestimate the Obama vote,” legendary pollster Stan Greenberg said in a video posted on The Carville-Greenberg Report Monday.

“A majority of Hispanics are cellphone-only; 4 out of 10 African-Americans are cellphone-only. Young people, of course, are mostly cellphone only,” Greenberg explained. This greatly complicates polling since only live pollsters call cellphones.

“You know, if you’re reached on a cellphone, you’re 11 points more likely to be voting for President Obama,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg isn’t the only one who has observed the president’s mobile advantage. The New York Times’ poll guru Nate Silver  has noted the same phenomenon and suggests that polls that include cellphones tend to be much higher quality.

A second way cellphones are changing the political landscape is through donation by text.

President Obama’s campaign was the first ever to accept donations by text. Governor Romney’s campaign joined him shortly thereafter. Though carriers capped the amount of donations an individual could give through this method, it proved to be highly effective for the president.

Early estimates suggest that Obama outraised Romney by a 500-to-1 ratio via text message. This helped the president catch up with the Republicans on fundraising and presents a unique opportunity.

Could political commercials pay for themselves? By including the easy text-to-donate option at the end of many commercials, the president’s campaign may have created a new model that will definitely benefit campaigns targeting voters with cellphones, which will, before long, be nearly all voters.


The final way cellphones may define this election is the most troubling. Meet the symbol of everything that’s wrong with American politics: The Obamaphone.

The sound you hear in your head as you watch the “Original Obamaphone Woman” video is a racial foghorn being blown. In a video that has been viewed over 5 million times, an African-American woman says she’s voting for President Obama because he gave her a phone.

This triggered a flood of false stories suggesting that this was a federal program the president started that perfectly exemplifies his desire to reward people for not working. Of course, this was a lie.

The phone the woman is referring to is a benefit of the Lifeline program for landlines that was first signed into law by Ronald Reagan and then expanded by presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to include cellphones. Lifeline is designed to make sure the poorest Americans have access to a phone in case of emergency, since the cost of letting emergencies escalate inevitably is passed on to taxpayers. The program is entirely funded by a fee assessed to telecommunications providers who are not allowed to pass the costs on to their customers.

Basically it’s an example of a smart government program. However, the right-wing media feeding on its audience’s biases spread the story far and wide to smear the president.

The Romney campaign has proudly said they will not be constrained by fact-checkers. This works for two reasons. The mainstream media has a vested interest in maintaining the appearance of balance. Continually calling out lies on the right would subject them to attacks by the second reason: Truth is a casualty of modern elections.

The right-wing media is so strong that it can create narratives on its own. The most popular news network (Fox News) and news website (Drudge Report) in America are tools of the right wing. There simply is nothing on the left to counter their power. This gives the Republican Party the freedom to divorce themselves from facts and concentrate on any messaging that works.

That’s how you get ads like this.

On November 6, 2012, we’ll discover how much the cellphone has changed America.

Were we operating for months on a mistaken picture of the electorate that always favored the president? Or are we a nation so fragmented by the ways we communicate and receive information that the strength of the right-wing media to transmit lies is too powerful to overcome?

Photo credit: Dominik Syka

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