If the phone rings during these last days of the campaign, chances are it's a big, bad computer calling. Of the hundreds of millions of political robo-calls launched this year, the bulk have landed in the last two weeks, with still plenty more to come, since some of the country's largest automated-dialing vendors do 80 percent of their business in the final 10 days before an election. But the increased volume doesn't necessarily translate into success.
A skit from last weekend's "Saturday Night Live" seemed to sum up the public's perception of robo-calls: full of half-truths and scare tactics, a slap in the face to our collective intelligence. "Robo-Call built to give movie time, now Robo-Call only used to scare old people," intoned a silver-painted Will Forte, dressed as an oil-swilling, suicidal robot phone. "Next week Robo-Call supposed to tell black people election canceled."
Robo-calls weren't always such a weapon of bad intent. Back in the mid-'90s they were a fairly benign novelty. Political campaigns quickly hit on the arrival of automated telemarketing systems and computerized dialers as a cheap alternative to traditional phone-banking, which was expensive, painstakingly slow and required serious manpower. But with robo-calls, a campaign could take a pre-recorded message, often the voice of the candidate, a call list generated from a targeted database of phone numbers, hand them over to a vendor and in a matter of minutes, have their message spit out to thousands of voters for mere cents per call. "They were extremely effective when they debuted," says John Zogby, president and CEO of the polling company Zogby International.
Back then, the calls grabbed listeners' attention largely because people weren't sure if what they were hearing was live or recorded. In 1998, it was still unclear to many North Carolina voters whether the message left on their answering machine was really President Bill Clinton calling to encourage them to vote for an unknown trial lawyer named John Edwards running for Senate. "A lot of people believed that the president had actually called their house," says Gerry Tyson, whose Ft. Worth, Texas-based company, The Tyson Organization, served as the vendor for those calls in 1998.
As they've evolved, robo-calls have gotten more sophisticated, and more devious. Soon, the friendly voice of a politician was replaced by a celebrity calling on the candidate's behalf, or an anonymous voice with information "you need to be aware of." These days, many robo-calls are presented as interactive polls or surveys. "People have gotten really creative in how to use them, and that's what's led them to become so controversial," Tyson says.
"There was an intersection of push polling and automated calls that occurred to really devastating effect," Zogby says. Still the most infamous example of negative robo-calls are the ones on the eve of the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary, insinuating that McCain's Bangladesh-born adopted daughter Bridget was an illegitimate child. George W. Bush wound up beating McCain in South Carolina and going on to secure the nomination. That same year, a robo-call from Al Gore was mistakenly launched into thousands of homes in West Virginia at 2:30 a.m., proving that politicians don't have to go negative for a robo-call to backfire on them.
Today the average price of a robo-call is about seven cents apiece, roughly a fifth of what they cost a decade ago, and still usually a fraction of what it costs to run a large phone-bank operation with paid callers. In a year like 2008, with some 7,000 political campaigns being waged across the country, from president to members of the local school board and city council, robo-calls are the campaign tool in everyone's tool bag. "Automated phone calls are still the single most cost-effective way to reach out to people," says Lance Stanley, owner of PoliticalCalling.com, an automated calling vendor out of Sacramento, Calif., that claims to be able to process 700,000 calls an hour. Since the company started in 2001, Stanley says business has grown by 25 percent each election year. "This year we'll do about 100 million calls," he says.
According to a Pew Research Center report out last week, 37 percent of voters say they've gotten a prerecorded campaign call, which is down by 2 percent since March, but up from 25 percent last November. Those numbers jump to 52 percent among voters in battleground states such as Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Virginia. Fifty-seven percent of battleground voters who are certain they're voting for McCain report they've gotten a robo-call, while 47 percent going for Obama say they have.
Most vendors report that half their calls get picked up by an answering machine, which is good for them in that it counts as a completed call. Of those that get answered by a live person, vendors say that about half of the recipients hang up in the first 10 seconds. "The other 50 percent will listen to the entire message," Stanley says. "The average man who listens will give you 10 seconds; a woman will give you 17 to 18 seconds," says Marty Stone, cofounder of Stones' Phones, a Washington, D.C.-based vendor that works with Democratic campaigns. "Seniors," he says, "will typically give you 30 seconds or more."
But research indicates that whether they're listened to or not, robo-calls have no effect on voting habits. Don Green, a political science professor at Yale, subjected robo-calls to 12 randomized experiments for his 2004 book "Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout." The results, he says, were revealing. "These calls never raise voter turnout. They have no mobilization effect, and no persuasion effect either. What matters is whether they change the probability of voting, and robo-calls have proven they do not."
There is also the possibility of inflicting damage with robo-calls, particularly if they're negative and overused. "You have to be very careful," says John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University who has researched negative politics. "They tend to be very micro-targeted, so you're hopefully going after people who are open to the message you're delivering. But if done too much, they can backfire."
Recently, robo-calls have been subjected to some strict state legislation. About 10 states currently have laws restricting their use. In Washington, the Robocall Privacy Act of 2008 was introduced in February by Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. The bill would restrict calls to between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., limit two per household per day and prohibit the masking of callers' phone numbers or identity on caller-ID machines. Anyone in violation would be subject to fines of up to $3,000 per offense.
"Robo-calls are harassment, plain and simple, that's our beef," says Shaun Dakin, CEO and founder of Citizens for Civil Discourse, an anti-political-calls group. Currently, the federal Do Not Call List only applies to commercial calls. "It should apply to political calls, as well," Dakin says. "People should be able to opt out."
Robo call advocates however aren't sweating. They feel that the First Amendment will always protect them. "No one ever said that democracy had to be convenient," says Stanley of PoliticalCalling.com. "It's going to be done in the most cost-effective way out there, and that's what we're here for."