One of the least glamorous devices in politics has landed in the headlines: Republican John McCain is taking criticism for using robocalls, or automated phone calls, to spread negative messages about Democrat Barack Obama.
Campaigns like robocalls because they are incredibly cheap and cost a small fraction of a piece of direct mail.
The most recent robocall is a McCain message that accuses Obama of being a radical dupe for terrorists.
"Hello. I'm calling for John McCain and the RNC, because you need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers..." begins one robocall.
This call has caused an uproar — partly for its method and partly for its message. McCain and the Republican National Committee also have a robocall about Obama and abortion.
Those who object include Republican senators fighting for re-election.
In Minnesota, Sen. Norm Coleman calls for no more negative advertising. On WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, Coleman was asked about McCain's robocalls.
"I think this plays into what I said about negative ads," he said. "I think those ads, those things, those calls should stop."
In Maine, Republican Sen. Susan Collins was even more blunt, saying, "These kind of tactics have no place in Maine politics."
McCain was the victim of robocalls himself in the 2000 presidential primaries. The calls made personal attacks on him and his family, and he denounced them.
But Sunday on Fox News, McCain said he's not stopping his phone campaign against Obama.
"Of course not. These are legitimate and truthful," he said on the program.
McCain is not the only one with an automated speed dial. The Missouri Democratic Party has a robocall promoting Obama in which a woman who identifies herself as a "mom" named Rebecca says, "I'm calling to make sure you received something in the mail recently describing John McCain's plans to give tax cuts for companies that ship jobs overseas."
Shaun Dakin is the founder of the National Political Do Not Contact Registry. The organization wants to let people block calls from politicians.
"If you live in a battleground state, you could be getting 10 to 15 calls a day at this point in the election cycle. If you're a night-shift worker — I mean, we have calls, we have e-mails from people who are night-shift workers who are simply not able to get the sleep they need in order to do their job," he said.
Economics Of Robocalls
Studies show that robocalls usually aren't that effective. Dakin says it's their economics that keep them going.
"Essentially, all you need to do is buy a computer server with the right software on it, and you have a robocall system. So if they're relatively low quality done over the Internet — called voice over IP — those can be as low as a quarter of a cent a call," he said.
David Magleby is a political scientist at Brigham Young University who studies political communication strategies. He has two possible interpretations of McCain's big push with robocalls. It could be that McCain's campaign is using them instead of far more costly TV ads. Or it could be "that they may not have the volunteer base that the Bush campaign had in 2000 or 2004, and so they're going to robocalls rather than having volunteers call," he added.
Either way, McCain's phone operations are so intense, they may set a new standard for robocall saturation and, perhaps, for their impact.