“I cannot believe you are spending a Sunday afternoon bothering people on the phone,” my husband huffed, as I readied myself for an afternoon of phone banking for the President’s re-election campaign.
I could not believe it either.
I’m not crazy about talking on the telephone, even with family and friends. That did not stop me from taking call-out research jobs when I was a college student, many (many!) years ago. That’s an experience I try not to think about much: My co-workers ended up very close friends, but I dreaded the job itself; the abuse from people who did not appreciate the interruption, the hang-ups, the insults, and the curses — made worse by my own feeling that they had every right to be annoyed.
In 2008, I resisted all entreaties from the campaign to volunteer at a phone bank. I just wrote checks and figured the young people would handle the effort to get out the vote.
In 2012, that isn’t going to be enough. The Obama campaign is still a fundraising juggernaut, but thanks to Citizens United, corporations and billionaires can now legally donate unlimited amounts to candidates who would scrap the gains we made since 2009 and take us back on the Bush-era economic path that brought the country to a financial abyss in the first place. And those groups have out raised the pro-Democratic groups by a ratio of four-to-one.
We know Mitt Romney’s campaign strategy from the primaries, when he used his tremendous monetary war chest to blanket the airwaves with negative advertising against his opponents. And since last week’s Republican National Convention, we also know that he and Paul Ryan won’t let a little thing like facts get in the way of a good smear. Thanks to our nation’s perpetual campaign (Romney has been gunning for the Presidency since 2007), most people I know are already sick of this election. By November 6, many independent or undecided voters may be tuning out all political messages; Democrats may feel so discouraged by the negativity that they stay away from the polls.
There is too much at stake to allow that to happen. Between women’s rights, Supreme Court appointments, Obamacare, Medicare, Social Security, jobs bills, consumer protection measures and tax proposals aimed at shrinking the fiscal deficit, it is imperative to (a) re-elect President Obama and (b) vote Democrats into the down-ticket races so that the Administration will have a team to back them up. If not, the Tea Party platform will rush in quicker than you can say “personhood amendment,” and 70 years of New Deal innovation will be wiped away, taking us all back to a 19th century reality where there is no longer even any pretense of a safety net. If you get sick and cannot afford to pay the bill, too bad. If you are poor, that’s your fault. If you are the victim of a natural disaster, you’re on your own (and no one will even talk about the role climate change has played in the stronger hurricanes, deadlier droughts and rising oceans — we’re too busy drilling more oil, fracking more gas and extracting every last bit of coal out of the earth). Only the children of the wealthy will be able to afford college; you’ll be lucky if you can afford to pay for your kids to graduate from a privatized high school.
And don’t even think about joining a union to better your working conditions, because that would be illegal.
This year, writing a check isn’t going to be enough. We need to put our mouths where our money is, and get involved. That means old-fashioned, high-touch community organizing: person-to-person contact through canvassing and phone banking. So I swallowed my fear of the phone and RSVP’d to my local OFA team’s invitation to make some calls on Sunday afternoon.
When I did call-out research in college, we kept orange juice and vodka in the office fridge, and there were days when sipping a screwdriver while I worked was the only way I could get through my shift. These days, coffee is my fuel of choice, so it was fortunate that our San Fernando Valley phone banking team was meeting at a nearby Starbucks. I got my caramel macchiato and found a table near an outlet so I could plug in my computer and charger.
I was greeted by the folks coordinating Sunday’s phone banking team. Lance was about my age, wearing a t-shirt that read “Occupy the Vote.” Vicki wore business casual. She thanked me for coming, signed me in and handed me my call list: six pages listing voters with their names, phone numbers and political affiliations. Lance handed me my instructions and script.
“Have you done this before?” Lance asked. I told him my history – and my misgivings about doing call-out again, so many decades later.
“Well, the good news is, you’ll probably only end up actually talking to a couple of people,” he said. “If they are solid Romney supporters, thank them for their time and move on to the next name on the list. If they are undecided, go ahead and tell them a little about the President’s economic plan. If anyone you talk to sounds like they may want to join us, you’ll feel like you’ve hit a home run.”
The instructions indicated that the script was just a guideline — volunteers were urged to use their own words and engage with people one on one. “Read the procedures first and get comfortable with it — then you can start making calls,” Lance said.
The people we were calling on Sunday all lived in Nevada — which made sense. I had heard from a friend who heard from a friend higher up in the campaign that California volunteers are critical for phone banking to neighboring states… and Nevada has been coming up purple recently, which means that with a little nudging, could tip over to blue.
I finished my coffee, swallowed my fear and started calling.
By the time I’d gotten through my first page, I realized how much call-out had changed since the last time I tried this. Back in 1980, everyone was still using wired telephones… there was no caller ID… and even answering machines were kind of a rarity. Now, people can see at a glance who’s calling. Whenever I get a call from an unknown out-of-state number, I hit “ignore.” And apparently, so were most of the people on my list.
It got to a point where it was a shock when someone actually did answer — and more often than not, I was told it was a wrong number. Occasionally, the person who answered would be the one on the list. Usually, he or she did not want to talk. One irritated respondent let me know his name was “Jerry” and was not a female named “Geri.” I’m betting that the list probably got his Democratic party affiliation wrong, too. He did hang up on me.
The last person on my list let me know in no uncertain terms that he would never vote for President Obama or for that matter, Harry Reid.
“Harry Reid isn’t running this year,” I told him. “The Democratic candidate for Senate is Shelley Berkley.”
“Well, I’m not voting for her, either,” he said. “Do you want to talk some more about it?”
“Uh, no, not really,” I told him. “I’m not about to change your mind, and you’re not going to change mine, so why should we waste each other’s time?”
I thanked him for the time he did give me and reminded him to vote on November 6.
“Oh, believe me, I will,” he said.
Going through all six pages only took an hour. I had expected to be working for three. I turned in my pages and asked Vicki for another batch.
“Oh my! You’re wonderful,” she said gratefully.
I told her I wasn’t so sure about that. I pointed out all the wrong numbers. She nodded. “Predictive dialing is a lot more accurate,” she said. This is an Internet-based system that volunteers using Dashboard can access at BarackObama.com.
I returned to my seat with my new pages. Another volunteer named Justin was now sitting behind me, and I could not help but listen to his conversations. He was a pro. He was actually making contact and comfortably engaging with the people on the other line — without the script.
Justin wasn’t the only distraction. It’s noisy in Starbucks; between the sound of the blenders and the background music, it’s hard to hear.
The Obama campaign has not opened any offices near my home in the San Fernando Valley. So phone bank teams are meeting in homes and public spots with wi-fi — like Starbucks. As inconvenient as that may be, I think they are wise to put their resources into this one-on-one get-out-the-vote effort.
I went through my second batch of numbers almost as quickly as the first — and near the end of the final page, I finally made a connection with an Obama supporter who was receptive to being contacted again.
BINGO. Lance was right. I felt like I’d just scored.
I will be phone banking again — maybe next time, taking Vicki’s suggestion of using the predictive dialing system.