The calling

I hate telemarketers. No matter how many you tell Do Not Call, there’s always another one to interrupt your work, jerk you out of an afternoon nap, or worse, rankle you when you’re waiting for an important call-back from the doctor about your kid who just stepped on jagged glass and is screaming so loud you can’t even hear who’s on the phone.

So if you happen to be one of the 80 Pennsylvanians I blitzed with calls Saturday around dinnertime… wait, don’t hang up—I can explain.

Okay, you know the election coming up Nov.7? Here in California it’s mainly about a bunch of propositions and judges you never heard of and some statewide offices, including the showdown between the famous, ex-bodybuilder and the Democratic guy who’s not him. But in other states, there are Congressional seats up for grabs, featuring candidates who want to set policy on things like the festering karma-suck that is our War on Terror, and how much more of our Constitution we’re willing to shred to maintain it.

So when MoveOn.Org started pestering me to join a nationwide get-out-the-vote campaign, I only ignored their first dozen or so requests before I started feeling like maybe I ought to participate. I finally gave in when an Oak Park couple volunteered their home as a calling center for a weekend afternoon. Here was a chance to do some good and learn a state-of-the-art electioneering technique, all while munching snacks with a small group of congenial neighbors. Not exactly a boiler room operation—even if it might seem that way to our targets.

We all met around 2 p.m. and, after we signed in and watched a short, spirited video from MoveOn, our hostess Corie handed out fact sheets on the Senate race in Pennsylvania—one of several Congressional campaigns that could go either way in November. This was the race we’d be focusing on that afternoon.

I knew little about Democratic candidate Bob Casey before reading the laudatory campaign material, but I was plenty familiar with his opponent. Rick Santorum is the powerful, anti-choice Republican incumbent, who huckstered his way shamelessly through the Terri Schiavo affair, traveling to Florida for an ethically questionable fundraising opportunity, which he milked by publicly praying outside the poor woman’s hospice to prolong her ordeal.

Corie handed out our first lists of phone numbers, and we spread out throughout the house and pool area with our cell phones to get started. Each call sheet had 16 numbers and no names. We were instructed to call each number only once; if the line was busy or no one answered, we were to mark our reports accordingly and try the next number on the list. According to MoveOn’s research, that’s the most efficient way to reach the highest number of voters.

The calls were designed to be short. We had a brief working script that most of us stuck pretty closely to, identifying ourselves and politely asking for a vote for Casey on Election Day. We weren’t supposed to argue or try to convince anybody. The sooner we got off the phone, the better.

In two hours, I worked my way through the 80 numbers on five call sheets. Of those, I made contact with only 30 or so people (what were all the others doing at dinnertime anyway?). Half the folks I spoke with cut me off without answering my questions. Several were on the rude side but not outside the bounds of what might be expected. A handful were willing to talk but didn’t know or care there was an election coming up. The remainder said they intended to vote for Casey, most of them enthusiastically.

I called my results in to an automated MoveOn line, where organizers will tally them with others from around the nation and create new lists with more complete information that will be used right up until zero hour. The organization claims it has been doing this for a while and it’s a very effective way to influence close elections. I guess we’ll see in November.

My journey to the telemarketing Dark Side wasn’t as bad as I had feared—except for one call to a semi-hysterical woman waiting to hear from her family doctor.

If you’re reading this, Ma’am, I hope your son’s foot is okay.


More by Eric Estrin:
Everything in moderation
Let's rename the Times
Ritter to L.A.: Stop the madness
Selected Correspondence #1
The calling
Previous Native Intelligence story: Tribune Company, meet Secretary Rumsfeld

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