Saturday, November 12, 2005

Why Robocalls Are Here To Stay

Robocalls (pre-recorded, automated phone calls) are spam, plain and simple. I hate them as much as I hate direct mail (=snail mail spam) or yard signs (=public space spam).

But here's the first problem: effective direct voter contact is a trade-off between effectiveness and coverage, or your ability to persuade people vs your ability to reach people. Put in other words, the critical resources in any campaign are time, people, and money. Sometimes that equation makes robocalls your best option.

The examples I'm giving here are simple, and I've omitted reams of information on other related field techniques, because this is a post and not a field textbook. (I'm also hoping a few of you make it all the way to the end of the post before you die of boredom.) I'm always happy to answer questions about "field stuff." In this case, the choice to keep this post focussed on robocalls vs their opposite, time-consuming but effective canvass programs, is a deliberate choice in the name of brevity, clarity, and compassion for the reader.

On a campaign, if you have enough volunteers, paid field staff, and/or a willing candidate and candidate surrogates, you can run a powerful canvass program knocking on doors and talking to voters one-on-one. The logistics are a bit of a juggle, and you need good field staff and a good voter file manager to target your program, as well as great volunteer recruiters and managers to make sure you have enough boots on the ground. One-on-one voter contact takes a small amount of money but it takes a huge amount of *time.* Plus, because people are not always home, even a grade-A canvass program will not reach all voters.

In contrast, robocalls are available just by cutting a check. And, they don't take much time. They are FAR less effective, but they are *easier* for campaigns to do. Robocalls are limited by: the phone matches on your voter file (seems to be around 60% in most places), the number of people home when you call, and the number of people with answering machines or voice mail. But, in a matter of hours, you can reach the same number of voters with robocalls that it would take months and hundreds of people to reach with a canvass program.

Grassroots campaigns are hard work. All other factors being equal, a ground war (grassroots strategies such as canvassing) will beat an air war (paid media and direct mail). But, the trend in campaigns is to do the easy and comfortable thing--write the checks, and spam out the robocalls, direct mail, and tv and radio ads.

Speaking of which, here's the second problem: the BIG campaign consultants don't make money off of grassroots campaigns. So who pushes for spam techniques--why, the DC parasite class, naturally. Their financial gain is more important than the Democratic win.

[At this point I need to make a disclaimer. The notable exception to my statement above, in my personal experience, has been Marty Stone at Stone's Phones. I've actually worked on campaigns where Marty has said, "There's a less expensive way to do that," "There's a more effective way to do that," and "You don't need that round of calls. Cut it from your budget." I have an abiding respect for him because he puts his clients first and he does tremendous work.]

Let me present this to you as a case study: you are running a campaign. You've had a great field team, huge numbers of enthusiastic volunteers, but it is one week out and you've only managed to hit 6,000 households and ID 4,500 supporters out of an expected turnout of 20,000 people. You can't safely run GOTV (get out the vote) with those numbers. Your volunteers also aren't going to be able to hit another 14,000 households or 5,900 supporters in the next week. (4,500 + 5,900 = 10,400 supporters, or 52% of the expected turnout, a standard GOTV win margin target.)

Your only reliable option is to do a round of phone ID's to hit a targetted list selected from the remaining 14,000 households to try to pick up another 5,900 voters. And, unless you have a bionic volunteer phonebank available, in most cases, the only realistic way to process those phone ID's is through a paid phone vendor.

Likewise, come Election Day, your time is running out, your quantity of people depends on your candidate and how you've run your campaign, and you are throwing money at any problem that pops up. You need to remind all of your ID'd supporters to vote on election day. Depending on the specifics of your district and election, you may need to makes sure some of them get the reminders before election day itself (e.g., commuter districts where people may leave the house before polls open and return after polls close--you need to get a message to those voters in time to persuade them to vote). You have a variety of field techniques at your disposal for your GOTV program, but the technique that requires the least time and people are GOTV phone calls. If you can do all of your calls out of an effective, in-house volunteer live phone back, you'll spend less money and get better results. If you don't have the phone lines or the people to make a volunteer GOTV phone bank are back to robocalls.

Now, I don't disagree at all with Matt's original thesis, that robocalls are as annoying as hell. My strong suggestion to Democrats is to use robocalls sparingly and well.

I'll pursue those thoughts in a separate post.

For more on Robocalls, please see Doing Robocalls the Right Way.

Why Robocalls Are Here To Stay is also cross-posted at The Blogging of the President.


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