According to author and political strategist Joe Garecht, there are five reasons for campaigns to use phone banks: as a follow-up for the campaign’s direct mail; for identifying which voters are committed to which candidate; getting out the vote; fundraising calls; and to get out your rapid response to the opponent’s attacks.
While all of these are important reasons to have a phone bank, the most obvious reason is simple: persuasion. Although the process requires either a lot of money or a lot of volunteers, phone banking can be one of the most effective forms of persuasion because it involves direct, two-way contact between the campaign and the voter. This is especially true when it’s done by volunteers.
Of course, little beats door-to-door canvassing, but in rural areas where it’s hard to get around or urban areas which consist of inaccessible apartment buildings, calling the voters is your best option.
In fact, an emphasis on voter contact went a long way towards President Obama’s impressive victory last year. As we found when examining the exit polls last year, the Obama campaign made as much as 37% more voter contact than McCain’s team did.
Yet with the technological revolution of the past two decades, the way campaigns communicate with voters on the phone is changing.
As you probably know, with the rise of cell phones, many Americans no longer bother keeping land lines. For a while – and even today in some states – finding cell numbers for phone banks was difficult and the databases campaigns used were incomplete.
But with new voters (who are largely behind the decline of land lines) come new voter registration forms complete with cell numbers that literally – by law – can stick with a person for life if he or she so chooses. Campaigns that register voters can collect these numbers and enter them into the party’s database. Hence, this particular problem is slowly fading away.
Then there was the problem of the call itself. As Campaigns and Elections wrote in 2002, it makes sense to call a voter on their cell phone “only if you want voters angry because your campaign wasted their air time and cost them money.”
Luckily the so-called “invisible hand of the free market” has been taking care of that problem – more and more cell phone companies have stopped charging their customers for incoming calls.
What the tech-age has done to phone banking is made it easier for campaigns – sort of.
In 2006, an article posted on the website for Democratic strategists Paul and Marty Stone (who specialize in phone communications) described the way campaigns can now do phone banks:
Campaigners for Patrick Murphy were staring the May 16 Democratic primary in the teeth. In 48 hours, voters in Pennsylvania's 8th District would go to the polls. There were plenty of volunteers to make get-out-the-vote calls, but not enough phones.
It was May 14, and a Murphy staffer took a suitcase into the basement of a campaign volunteer's home in Bucks County. He unzipped the bag and pulled out a dozen telephones, plugged them into a computer, and within five minutes, the group began using the Internet to call local voters.
There were no expensive phone line deposits to pay the local telephone company. No waiting for the telephone company installer or promises he would be there between 8 a.m. and noon or 1 and 5 p.m. two weeks down the road, when it would be too late.
A handful of volunteers and staffers made 2,000 get-out-the-vote calls in two days, and Murphy won with nearly two-thirds of the vote against his Democratic challenger.
Of course, Marty Stone himself stresses that when campaigns can, they should stick to traditional land lines because internet phones and mobiles just don’t deliver the same quality. But in high-pressure situations or for rural towns that can’t get the same staff attention as the bigger cities, the internet lines and cell phones can be a great way to streamline scarce campaign resources.
And then there is the way the Obama campaign made new innovations to an old concept. Not only did they start getting volunteers in mass from states like California calling voters in states like Ohio, but they also figured out ways to get activists that otherwise couldn’t volunteer to make calls from home.
From an interesting Huffington Post article on phone banking last year:
If you're an expat like Charley James, an American living in Toronto, Canada, who wants to volunteer for a favorite candidate, a virtual phone bank is the way to go.
James contacted the Obama campaign by signing up online. When he has a few free hours after work, he logs in, receives a list of names, a script and a report form and starts calling the all-important Ohio voters. He calls undecided and likely voters and registered Democrats.
He emails his report into the campaign and from there, other data entry volunteers --- either online or at an Obama office --- merge the information into the Obama 'Mother Brain' that scrubs voter data --- updating and cleaning up their voter information database crucial for the Election Day GOTV efforts and setting the stage for the next campaign cycle.
The use of technology like mass texting and online phone banks has been key to Sen. Obama's startling wins during the primary against better-known rivals, who also employed digital-tech outreach but not as efficiently or effectively.
Of course, some campaigns will continue to avoid such innovations, and for valid reasons. As political scientists Donald Green and Alan Gerber observed in their 2004 book, Get Out the Vote!:
“In principle, you can coordinate a phone bank in a decentralized manner, with callers working from home. Although less expensive, this type of arrangement creates potentially serious supervisory problems. Even if the callers are doing their work, you cannot monitor whether they are staying “on message” and conveying the proper tone. For this reason, most campaigns prefer to have phone bank volunteers make their calls from a central location.”
Yet with campaigns being as competitive as ever, their operatives are going to continue to walk a fine line between the traditional safeties of sound quality and centralized volunteers and the 21st Century realities of fast-paced, high-pressure operations that require a block of decentralized supporters.
According to political scientist and campaigns expert Bob Roberts, future campaigns will require flexibility – making use of multiple techniques to get to voters rather than relying on the traditional standbys. "That's the dilemma all campaigns are facing now," he says.
And he’s exactly right.
Come back Friday for Part 3 of the series - Small vs. Large Campaigns.