Campaign Journal: Pennsylvania Voters Reticent...Sort Of

10/27/2008 01:36 pm 13:36:27 | Updated May 25, 2011

Barbara White Stack is an OffTheBus grassroots correspondent. Each week she contributes a campaign journal documenting her life out on the trail.

The difference between a robo-caller and a phone-banker is the listening.

The robo machine loses effectiveness in the persuasion game because it can't listen. It just talks at the hapless victim of its calls, like a nag. It doesn't hear the imploring yell, "Leave me alone! No more political calls!" It fails to acknowledge, "I agree with you. Please stop calling me." It's utterly unable to deal with, "I'm interested in your guy. But I need more information on his tax plan."

The phone-banker, in contrast, has real ears, can listen to the person on the other end of the line, can respond appropriately to questions and concerns. He can react to entreaties like, "No more calls!" by selecting the box on the computer marked "Do not call." He can assure peace to those who agree with him by marking "call complete." And he can actually answer questions on taxes and health care and national defense by using the list of talking points supplied to phone-bankers. He can hear what the voter has to say and engage him in conversation. That's far less annoying, and much more effective than the not interacting that goes on with a robot.

The problem I found as a phone-banker, however, is most of what I listened to was not insightful political questioning but answering machine messaging. So, oddly, the phone-banker ends up spending most of his time hearing robot-voiced recordings:

"Hello. No one is available to take your call. Please leave a message after the tone."

"You have reached 555-555-5555. At the beep, please leave a message."

"Please leave your message after the tone."

I got so many robot voices that I now have new appreciation for those who go to the trouble of recording their own phone messages and including pleasantries like, "Hello," "Have a good day," and "God bless." The best are those by intelligible children and charming individualists, like this one, "Yo! This is the (name) house. Please leave a message."

At the United Steelworkers' phone bank in Pittsburgh, a computer dials the numbers. You sit in a cubicle with a monitor, a headset and a packet of material on ways to dispel rumors about Barack Obama and convince the undecided to vote for the Democrat. All of the targets the night I worked were union members in Pennsylvania. Most unions have endorsed Obama, and the majority of union members are Democrats, so no one I called responded hostilely.

My standard opening line went like this, "Hi. I am Barbara White Stack. I am a member of the United Steelworkers union. We are calling union households in Pennsylvania to try to persuade them to vote for Barack Obama on Nov. 4."

Most responses went like this one: "You don't have to persuade me. I am voting for Barack Obama. I will be there bright and early Nov. 4."

Some people were a little cagier. One woman said, "Well, I prefer not to say who I'm going to vote for. But I'm not going to vote for that other guy."

"John McCain," I asked.

"Yes," she said.

Similarly, another woman told me, "I am not going to tell you who I'm voting for because that's private. But I will say this: I don't like John McCain."

Precious few responders let on to being with the GOP. But one woman told me this: "You can't persuade me to vote for Barack Obama. I am a registered Republican."

She paused, then added, "I won't be voting this time."

In addition to answering machines, I got lots of wrong numbers and disconnected phones. At least the phone company didn't hire a robot to record its messages. It's so much less irritating to hear this when it's crooned by a young woman: "555-555-5555 has been disconnected. Nor further information is available about 555-555-5555."

One wrong number I called was for Julianna Weber in Philadelphia. Her son answered and explained she is 92 and living in a nursing home. I asked if he was a union member, and he laughed.

He certainly was. I'd reached Brian McBride, president of the Philadelphia firefighters union. Of course he was voting for Obama; he'd been campaigning hard for the Democrat. When he ran into a person reluctant to vote for Obama because he's black, McBride said he told them to vote for Obama's white half.

He said he'd had to flip some firefighters who are registered Republicans, but most understand that Obama's tax plan, which would give breaks to 95 percent of working families, is better for them than McCain's, which permanently cuts taxes for the nation's wealthiest.

He asked if I knew Joey King, president of the Pittsburgh firefighters union. And when I said I did, he mentioned that he'd recently returned from King's wedding in Las Vegas and urged me to pass on best wishes the next time I saw his Pittsburgh counterpart.

I didn't have to persuade Brian McBride to vote for Obama. But listening to him was fun and revived me for the next hour of calls. Robo-callers are tireless and don't need encouragement or nourishment or bathroom breaks. But politics is about power relationships people establish among themselves to order their society, so it's important that political calls be made by human beings who can create connections with voters.

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