Phone Banks A Staple Of Campaigning Since 1968

As part of our series on the campaign toolbox, Audie Cornish talks to Wally Clinton about the early days of phone banking. In the 1960s, he helped to turn the phone into a tool for mass contacts in presidential campaigns. He still works in political telemarketing as Chairman and CEO of the American Directions Group.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You know its presidential campaign season when you start hearing a lot of this in our political stories.

MELISSA: Hi. Is Danny there, please? Hi. This is Melissa, and I'm a volunteer calling on behalf of the Republican Party of Iowa.

CORNISH: Phone banking. The mass mobilization of mostly volunteers to make thousands of calls is generally pretty unglamorous.

MICHELLE OBAMA: Hey. Is this Beverly? Hi. It's Michelle Obama. How are you doing?

CORNISH: Although there are some celebrity appearances.

OBAMA: That's good. That's good. Are you going to vote for my husband now?

CORNISH: This week, we're talking about the political toolbox, tricks of the trade that campaigns can't live without and where they came from. As for phone banking, let's start in the 1950s.

WALLY CLINTON: Several telephones were placed in the campaign headquarters, and you would call people who you knew. Or the precinct captain would call people that they know. It was a hit and miss method.

CORNISH: That's Wally Clinton. In 1968, he moved to Washington to get involved in the presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy. He ended up working for a consultant who was transforming that hit and miss method into a massive phone banking machine.

CLINTON: I think that the real difference was several things: the magnitude in which we did it, the fact that it was managed and controlled. And we got reports back, so we knew exactly where we were, how many phone calls we'd made, who they're going to. We had control over the message, and it was done on a mass scale. So it was predictable.

CORNISH: Give us a sense of size. What do you mean by mass?

CLINTON: Well, if it was a congressional district, we would have 25 phones in a room. Each person would be sitting at a card table. They had a list of names to call, which we provided. They had a message, which we provided. And the result of each telephone call was recorded. And then we took that data back and analyzed it for subsequent contacts. So, we would complete 60, 70,000 telephone calls in two or three weeks.

CORNISH: Wally Clinton says that people were floored by the magnitude of calls they were able to make. But these days, that's nothing. When volunteers dialed by hand, he says, they could make 17 to 18 calls an hour. Now, with computers doing automatic dialing, it's 80 to 90 an hour. Still, he says the fundamentals of phone banking haven't changed. First of all, engage voters in a dialogue. Second, ask them to get involved: to vote, to give money, to volunteer. And third, there's the follow-up.

CLINTON: The follow-up is probably more important than the actual phone call. One telephone call will not persuade a voter to vote for us. It's the repetition of contacts.

CORNISH: But here's the thing. That leads to something that, you know, a lot of voters hate, which is the nuisance of calls.

CLINTON: Absolutely. Well, that is one of the negatives. And that's why it's so important to try to touch that responsive cord. Get as much information about that voter as we can so that we're talking about something of interest to those voters.

CORNISH: Wally, for you, I don't know if you're at a very competitive congressional district or something like that.

CLINTON: All the time.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: But in your every day life now, when you get calls from a campaign, do you find yourself critiquing it?

(LAUGHTER)

CLINTON: Yes. Yes, I do. Some are good and some are bad.

CORNISH: Do you ever tell them, like, hey, if you really want to - this to work...

CLINTON: Well, one of my pet peeves are dialers in the wait time. When I say hello and then the person who is calling me comes on the line, I'll tell them that there's too much wait time here. And some of them won't know what I'm talking about but...

CORNISH: So they get on a beat too late after that blow.

CLINTON: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

CORNISH: So modern technology doesn't make everything better. Wally Clinton, who still works in political telemarketing as chairman and CEO of the American Directions Group, also concedes that phone banking is getting harder. Lots of young people don't have home phones. And with cell phones, you're required by law to hand dial. Remember, that takes a lot longer than automatic dialing.

Still, even in the era of email and texting and Facebook, campaigns are counting on the enduring value of the human voice connecting over a telephone.

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