Why Robocalls Work

I am reminded of when my four-year-old got a toy tool set for Christmas one year and suddenly everything in the house needed hammering.

I am reminded of when my four-year-old got a toy tool set for Christmas one year and suddenly everything in the house needed hammering. Robocalls are cheap. They are easy to launch. They don’t require days of creative thought. So yes, they are overused.


Robocalls are a small part of our firm’s revenue but certainly a large source of interest among our clients. We tell them to remember that the campaign’s risk/reward table is inverted with robocalls—launching a call at 3 a.m. rather than 3 p.m. will be the most expensive nickel phone call they ever made.


We also advise clients not to record a message they wouldn’t want their mothers to hear. And we tell them that the longer they wait in the political season, the more robocalls get lost in the clutter.


But robocalls are an effective tool when used correctly. Rather than refute the statistics that Shaun Dakin asserts with a dry recitation of evidence to the contrary, I’ll remind readers that the best run campaigns in history, on both sides of the aisle use robocalls.


Here are some ways they work:


Event Fullfillment: Early in the Presidential primary season, Senator Clinton had overflow crowds at her Iowa rallies—thanks in large part to interactive robocalls that helped to build crowd size and record the number of commitments to attend. The Obama campaign is doing the same in the general election.


Supporter Communications: Scores of US House candidates use robocalls to reach previously identified supporters--advising of rallies, appealing for help with yard signs or canvassing, etc.


Rapid Response: In close races with last minute bombshells, candidates use robocalls as the only means to respond.


Validation with minority voter groups: Ethnic, religious and racial minorities are particularly interested to hear from prominent citizens within their respective groups about the credentials of certain candidates. The same is true for single issue groups (NRA, NARAL Pro Choice America, etc.), and to a lesser extent, dues paying organizations like unions, small business organizations, environmental organizations etc.


Reinforcing other media: When targeted to certain demographics or voter profiles, robocalls work well to drive home direct mail and reinforce messages on the airwaves. A candidate spends 60 cents on a mail piece and another nickel on a robocall to double the rate at which voters read and digest the information.


Setting aside the efficacy of robocalls for the moment, I’ll say briefly that First Amendment concerns and the slippery slope arguments apply here. Democracy is messy and absurd at times. Robocalls can be among the most annoying manifestations of our right to free speech. My advice to those who hate robocalls is to use caller ID to screen your calls. Exercise your right not to answer the phone. Turn the ringer off during dinner.


Political consultants aren’t in the business of intentionally angering target audiences. So the market forces will work to alter the volume and nature of robocalls. And while our firm doesn’t rely on robocalls for its livelihood, we heartily endorse measures to get the thugs out of the business.


We agree that full disclosure of the source of the call is a workable solution. Calls from the Citizens Committee for Progress that allege a candidate’s extramarital affairs or drag up a DUI from college days are cheap shots that don’t advance the public discourse. We agree that reasonable calling hours should apply (any reputable robocall firm knows the current laws from state to state).


And we support stiff penalties for the rogues who don’t comply with disclosure and calling hour limits or who use robocalls for dirty tricks like jamming the phone lines of opponents.


But there are proposals out there which won’t work.


Limiting calls to 2 per household per day is one. Candidate campaigns and IE’s are prohibited from communicating. This won’t work.


Applying the Commercial DNC Registry to Political Calls. Again, see Amendment 1 of the U.S. Constitution.


The Political Do Not Call Registry. Does it apply to just federal races? Federal and state races? Local government but not statewide? And what if a person wants to re-engage in the political process? What if a Political DNC list person is inspired by a candidate and gives $20 and his phone number to the campaign? The questions are many.


Unnecessarily Lengthy Disclosure Tag Requirements. A 30 second recorded call with half of it in disclosure statements is not workable. In today’s world, a Committee name and website or phone number should be sufficient.


Brad Chism is president of Zata3 Communications, a Democratic firm that specializes in telephone voter contact.

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