Project Wonderful

Monday, October 6, 2014

Ask An Election Nerd: An Open Letter To The People Complaining About Political Phone Calls

Editor's Note: This question was not submitted, but rather a compilation of complaints I've received over the years. If you are a campaign worker, I hope you find it cathartic and if you are a voter, I hope you find it informative. CL&M, Nancy

It is the day before the Democratic primary in my state and my phone is ringing off the hook! I'm political donor and a super voter so why are these campaigns bother me? This can't possibly be effective. It's annoying and an invasion on my time! Make it stop!

Let me take a deep breath. Knowing the people who make these calls, knowing how effective they can be and knowing the verbal abuse and self-righteousness callers suffer at the hands of people who don't fully understand or appreciate the callers or their purpose, it's hard to not get defensive and even angry. But stepping back a little, I can see why the phone calls must be annoying. Trust me, they're pretty annoying to make. I'd like to believe that as someone who cares about the success of Democratic candidates and the right to engage in the political process you would be more empathetic if they could see the bigger picture, so let's break this down a little.

Different types of calls are well...different.

The first thing to understand is that not all phone calls are created equal. Calls can be live or recorded, paid or volunteer. This matters because these factors influence how effective calls are (and also how indignant I am.) There is some research to indicate that recorded robocalls are not effective at all. I do think robocalls can be helpful to let people know about an event, an endorsement, or to combat last minute misinformation being distributed aimed at voter suppression, (for example if your opponent's campaign was telling your supporters they need a to bring an ID to the polls when they do not) but in general we're in agreement here.

Live calls also fall into two categories: persuasion and GOTV. Persuasion calls are likely to go to what you call "super-voters." As a field director, if I am very confident that you are going to vote, but not sure who you are supporting, you and voters like you will be my top priority to persuade. These are the calls you were probably getting the day before the Democratic primary. The good news is that now that the primary is over, you are less likely to get these types of calls because campaigns will recognize that you are a partisan voter and not try to spend their time persuading you. In the future, if you want to reduce the number of persuasion calls you receive, you should let the caller know who you plan to vote for the first time they call, which should take you out of that campaign's persuasion universe.

Get out the vote calls, on the other hand, usually focus on voters who have an inconsistent voting history. If you don't always vote, but when you do you vote Democrat, I am going to want to make sure that you make it to the polls. Especially on election day itself, GOTV calls may also go to frequent voters, because campaigns want to take nothing for granted. The best way to cut down on the number of these calls is to simply let the caller know that you have already voted (assuming, of course, that you have.)

Except for on Election Day and barring a mistake, when voters say they have received three calls from a campaign on the same day they are either confused or exaggerating. It is more likely that they have received calls from outside organizations who are supporting a candidate with whom candidate campaigns are not legally allowed to coordinate. When it comes to get out the vote efforts in the general election, most state parties run coordinated campaigns, which should in theory reduce the number of individual phone calls you receive. (Why it may not is explained here in a post about campaign coordination.)

Yes, the calls are effective and scientific.

Inevitably, when I explain to people that live calls are (or at least can be) effective, I get back some variation of "well that's not my experience." I implore you to consider for a moment that this is not a matter of your individual experience. Maybe you do respond to these calls without even realizing it, or maybe you don't, but statistically blind experiments show the power of Get Out the Vote calls to a far greater extent than individual voters like to admit. People who claim that the science behind direct voter contact is flawed because they don't respond to phone calls, remind me of the people who deny studies proving the existence of climate change because their house is cold. This is about the big picture and while you are entitled to be annoyed by the methods that are proven to increase voter turnout, the facts and research, not to mention the far more extensive experience of political professionals, are not up for debate.

You mentioned (with pride) that callers refer to you as "super voter." This is no accident. Studies show that voters are more likely to turn out for an election when call scripts reference voting as a positive aspect of a voter's identity. For this reason I encourage my candidates to add "thank you for being a good citizen who votes" to the end of their GOTV scripts. Similar studies also found that encouraging voters to create a "voting plan," letting them know that the caller is local, and telling them that this election will see high turnout also increase participation.

When it comes to low engagement voters, political scientists Lisa Garcia Bedolla and Melissa Michelson conducted "268 get-out-the-vote field experiments...across six electoral cycles" and concluded that "what really mobilizes these voters is repeated personal contacting." In fact, studies repeatedly find that targeted phone calls with personal messages are one of the best ways to mobilize voters, second only to door-to-door canvassing. Evidence is particularly strong when calls are delivered by volunteers.

It is more difficult to find research on persuasion phone calls because direct voter contact (calls and canvassing) is almost always layered with other methods like direct mail and media. However we know that voter persuasion is effective and we know that phone calls are an effective way of changing voter behavior, so we can extrapolate that persuasion calls are probably an effective mechanism, at very least for reinforcing persuasion messages delivered in other mediums.

Traditionally field (the direct voter contact portion of campaigns) can make a difference of about 2-5%, which in many elections is the ballgame.

But they're calling me in my home!

I know none of this addresses the fact that the phone calls are annoying, so imagine something with me if you would. Imagine that you are not in a position to donate money to the candidates of your choosing. Imagine that you are chronically ill and without healthcare. Imagine you have a son or daughter who is gay and being bullied at school. Imagine you've been the victim of domestic violence and your incumbent member of congress supports repealing the Violence Against Women Act. Now imagine that you know how effective these calls are and that this is your only means of influencing how other people vote, (which, by the way, has direct consequences for you own quality of life.) How many calls would you make to save your job, your health insurance, or your child? So yes, my volunteers are bothering you at home but I bet they wish that getting a couple of annoying phone calls was their biggest problem.

These people could be resigned to do nothing, but instead they are taking what little political agency is afforded to them. The thing that I love most about field is that no matter how much mud gets slung, how much money gets spent, how many outside interests are involved, it can still come down to neighbors talking to neighbors. Given what's at stake in these elections, it kinda seems like a small price to pay.

In conclusion...

Yes, it's annoying. Making them is annoying. Like really, really annoying especially when people we're calling are hostile and sometimes even vitriolic toward the callers. Believe me, there are much more lucrative and comfortable careers than mine. But I do it, and my volunteers and coworkers do it, because we care about this country and we need your vote to help make a difference. So thank you for taking the time to listen. Thank you for being understanding when we call in the future. Thank you for supporting our candidates. And thank you, for being a good citizen who votes.

Campaign Love and Mine,



  1. Yes! And the fact that your vote is private only means that nobody can make you share that information. It does not mean that you are *supposed to* not share it and that I am doing a naughty thing by asking you. It also does not mean that your vote is "none of my business". Because your vote affects my life, it is my business - and any other citizen in Maine could and should say the same. And it does not mean that your vote is "personal information". Because your vote affects millions and, through cause and effect, billions of *other* people, that information is not inherently personal. It is inherently global.

    It is your choice whether or not to share your vote but not sharing it with someone who wants to have a conversation about the elections cuts you off from a potentially vital source of information. The responsible choice is not the one that isolates you. And that's what Nancy's referring to as "self-righteousness" - some people think that not talking about the election is a morally superior choice. They're wrong.