Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Monday, October 18, 2010

An Inside Story About Phone Banks

by Johnny Walker
@KingstonJW on Twitter

Experienced political strategists and politicians tell me simple phone calls by volunteers are an inexpensive and effective means to survey for likely voters in geographically specific zones. This not only gives campaigns a good feel for their progress but also helps them target spending in the most effective ways. During the last few weeks of a campaign, phone banks are one of the most effective tools to help encourage voter turnout.

On the flip side, it turns out that I am a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to answering the phone from people I don’t already know. If I see a 1-800 number I might not even answer it, and when I do I better get a prompt “hello” or they get the big click. So just imagine my response when a campaign actually asks me to volunteer with a phone bank. They can’t be serious, right? What kind of person actually does that? I decided to find out.

To help me reconcile the mental catch-22 between making calls and answering them, I visited a real life phone bank to check it out for myself. What I learned might surprise you.

I started my trek for enlightenment by visiting the Dino Rossi and James Watkins phone bank operation in Silverdale, Washington, where 21-year-old Braden Unger, Field Coordinator of the Rossi for Senate campaign, welcomed me. With a desk full of cell phones, bar coded lists, short scripts and pizza boxes; Braden was energized to be there. “We now have a chance to really make a difference,” he said. “Not like this is a glorious job but it is an important one,” and “It’s a cool opportunity,” for people who are looking for an easy way to help their candidates. He told me that making phone calls was not only easy to do, but they only rarely came across anyone who was rude. Besides, not only could it be fun to hang around people who are of like mind, “there is the pizza,” he said with a big grin.

With one of the biggest smiles I’ve seen in years, 61-year-old Margo agreed. Sitting on the carpet in an unfurnished office, the Bremerton resident brought her 63-year-old friend, Kathy, so they could be together doing something important for the future. Margo said, “I felt like I had to get in and do something, and this was something I could do.” Kathy, from Silverdale, seemed thrilled to be helping with Margo and said, “I just couldn’t watch it go on anymore and wanted to make a difference.” She also said that working on the phones “helps my attitude as an outlet.”

Another friend of Margo’s, 56-year-old Michelle was surprised at the austere working conditions. “It’s not like a Jerry Lewis telethon,” the prior Navy Nurse chuckled but she was comfortable. Michelle had some prior experience fund raising for cancer research and told me that, “10% of people will donate if you just ask them.” Making calls works. Tired of being told she was somehow a “bad” person for not believing the “100% progressive line,” she decided to help encourage change along by helping on phones.

Matthew told me he has had a “long time interest in politics” and wanted to “find some way to be involved in the political process.” The 21-year-old didn’t have money so volunteering was a natural first step. His 18-year-old-brother, Daniel, was dialing a cell near by. Having recently enlisted in the Army, he enjoyed sharing the time with his brother for a good cause.

In another room, Pat told me he was “fed up and wanted to help take our government back.” The 58-year-old man had prior call center experience and minimized any hint that rejection on the phone was much of a problem. “It rarely happens;” he just doesn’t take it personal and moves on to the next call. 67-year-old Karen was matter of fact about why she was there. “If you’re not doing something for the election, your part of the problem,” she told me. It was easy. She doesn’t take anything personal and revealed, “that more often than not, I leave a message.”

The most experienced politico on my office tour was 60-year-old Larry, who told me that making phone calls was his least favorite job but still “very important to do,” and it was an easy way to help for a few hours and go. Larry said he preferred “door belling,” so he could get an opportunity to talk to people face to face, but phone banking is a great place to start for the “political newbie wanting to do good at an easy comfort level.”

After seeing their faces and talking with some of the volunteers behind the phones, I think I’ve developed a better understanding about phone banking than I had a month ago. These were all real, down to earth, volunteers who were there to make a difference. Every one of them had a heart to be involved in the best way they could, within the precious time they could give, and quickly learned that taking a first step making calls was very easy to do. It turns out there is almost no confrontation, and the information they collect for campaigns is vital to the outcome. Because they were with people who felt the same about why they were there, there was great camaraderie growing between them as a team. And, of course, there was always the pizza.

The political strategists I spoke with told me that making phone calls during the last few weeks of the campaign were incredibly important to getting the vote out. There is still time to help. Check with your favorite candidate and see if phone banking is for you. Or maybe there will be something else. Don’t be one of those who wake up the morning of November 3rd and worry whether or not you did what you could. Be able to say, “I did.”

Support your candidate and get out the vote. November is coming.

Photos from top to bottom; KingstonJW; Field Coordinator Braden Unger manages people, phones, and even pizza; Michelle from Silverdale dials a call, Matthew from Silverdale.

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