“Have you caught anything good?”
It’s an easy conversation starter with any stranger out on the street that’s looking down at his or her phone this week. So it should be no surprise that political campaigns and issue groups are quickly taking advantage of the Pokemon Go phenomenon.
At parks, college campuses and downtown districts, young people are congregating en masse to search for Pokemon where PokeStops (locations that give extra items in the game) are concentrated. For a population notoriously difficult to reach on the phones or at their door, it’s a political organizer’s dream-come-true. Just show up and you have dozens to hundreds of people you can talk with, all of whom you can easily connect with by talking about the game.
The NextGen Climate Action organization, known for their creative campaign tactics, seems to be the first to take advantage in Iowa, crowd canvassing PokeStops since this weekend.
“We were trying to figure out where the youth vote is here in Ames. With Pokemon Go, that’s where it is,” says Jacob Martin, 23, the regional field director for NextGen in Ames. “We were walking around downtown and we realized you could tell who’s playing, all these groups of people wandering around. The game gives us a natural connecting point to people. We’re out playing it too. We’re also out with our heads in the sand, looking around.”
Young people are NextGen’s primary focus for pitching their climate change and clean energy message. But during the summer months that gets more difficult as college students return home.
“Ames’ main street has been pretty dead this summer, but when you put a bunch of PokeStops up a lot of people come out,” Martin explains.
In just two days of their Pokemon efforts, the Ames team signed up close to 100 people on their climate pledge cards. Monday night in Cedar Falls, the NextGen team recruited 60 young voters in just the course of an hour – they typically get about 15 an hour on an average night.
So Tuesday night Martin and the Ames NextGen team walked up the street from their office to one of the city’s main Pokestop locations on Main Street. On the way they play the game themselves as they walk, picking up a few Pidgeys and Drowzees during their walk. For staff that often work very long hours and weekends, it’s a nice way to have some fun on the job.
About 20 people are looking at their phones around a cluster of three Pokestops by some sculptures. All have lures set on them, an item you can use to bring out more Pokemon to a location for a half hour. Lauren Engley, 22, a deputy field organizer, quickly signs up a man who’s out with his wife and their baby playing the game.
Martin approaches a group of five young men.
“Increasing your level?” Martin asks one of them.
“Yeah, I’ve gone up two levels this afternoon,” he replies.
“I’ve seen a lot of people just getting the low-level Pokemon to level up,” Martin notes, and then turns the conversation to climate change and the importance of voting.
“Unfortunately, I’m not interested in voting,” the first man says.
“I understand that, but since we’ve seen the policies Donald Trump is putting out, especially for clean energy, his energy plan is detrimental to our goals of 50% clean energy by 2030,” Martin persists. “We’re trying to spread the message that if you want to win Iowa, you have to support clean energy.”
The quintet of mostly-bearded young men bob and dodge Martin’s effort like a flying Zubat, one of the bat-looking Pokemon things. One claims he’s already filled a card out. Another says he’s not old enough. A third explains that he once did canvassing like this, but doesn’t believe in voting now. A former Bernie Sanders supporter, he’s not feeling too optimistic on this day when Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton.
“There’s no good candidate, though – Hillary or Trump,” says another.
“Ooh, a Crabby,” the young man adds and goes back to catching the virtual creatures.
Difficulty is to be expected. But NextGen’s role as an independent issue group gives them an extra edge to begin these conversations with people who might be turned off to a specific candidate’s campaign.
And while some millennials see the options for president like a choice between trash Weedle and Rattata Pokemon, NextGen hopes young people will vote on climate to ensure the enviornment’s natural resources don’t become as rare as a Charmander.
After chatting with a couple people they signed up the previous day, the NextGen crew heads over to a nearby park. There aren’t many Pokemon players there, but the group has some luck signing up five people doing “Yoga in the Park.”
Bret Vannordsterand, 26, a NextGen field organizer, and Bailey Sterk, 16, a fellow, talk up two middle-aged women as they roll up their yoga mats.
“So this is being presented to Congresspeople, to candidates?” one asks as she fills out a pledge card.
“I hope she’s changed her mind about fracking,” the other woman says in reference to Clinton.
Sheng, the yoga group’s instructor, discusses the Pokemon game with Bret – even those not actively playing it still have it on their mind.
“There’s a little bit less people out today than other days,” Sheng observes. “But I see them walking downtown all the time.”
Indeed, just walking around with their phones out brings conversations straight to the campaigners. Two parents out with their kids stops the NextGen group as they head back to office, asking them what the game is all about. After explaining, Martin gives them the clean energy pitch.
Others are less friendly.
“Careful, don’t run into a pole,” chides one older woman as she walks past them. “Don’t want to be on there 24/7.”
“I’m so used to being heckled for political things that deserve heckling, this isn’t one of them,” Martin laughs.
On the return to the office, the group plots out their next steps.
“We need to be looking for those lures, we need to be placing lures,” Vannordsterand says. “I think it has a very high chance of success on weekends and at night after people are done with classes … I’m looking forward to checking out campus and seeing how the traffic flows tonight, because then we can tamp down our plans on targeting.”
That’s one of the best aspects of the Pokemon craze: it allows for a lot of campaign organizing work to be done after the typical voter contact hours. Some of the largest Pokemon gatherings happen on campus at after 10:00 PM. And NextGen plans a multi-city operation this Friday – they’ll set Pokemon lures in Des Moines, Iowa City, Cedar Falls and Ames, to help players find more creatures and bring them all to one spot. Find all the locations and times here.
by Pat Rynard