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Can 'robocalls' sway U.S. voters?Wednesday, October 22, 2008
When Rick Gilmore ran for Congress in Wyoming in 1986, a local labour union used an automated dialer to call voters with a recorded message touting his candidacy.
"They just had their own dialer," Gilmore said yesterday. "One line. It did calls from a tape, repeatedly, one after another. I hadn't really heard of it before that."
Times have changed. Gilmore, who lost his Wyoming race to one Dick Cheney, now runs a political ``robocall" firm. Today, such operations are digital and capable of making hundreds of calls per hour. As the price of automated calls has fallen, they have become pervasive.
Now used with equal zest by presidential candidates and unknowns running for low-level office, the calls that have generated controversy this month have been fixtures of national campaigns since the mid-1990s – despite little statistical evidence that they do anything more than annoy recipients.
"We, so far, found a perfect record of it never working," said Donald Green, director of Yale University's Institution for Social and Policy Studies, who studied the effect of robocalls in campaigns since 2000. "No one particularly welcomes these calls, even when they're from an organization to which one is generally sympathetic."
Gilmore, president of Democratic Dialing which makes calls for Democrats, said he is "obviously not convinced" by Green's conclusions.
"The value of the calls is proven," he said, when callers avoid inconvenient times and negative content. "The people who win campaigns use robocalls. They use them sensitively."
The campaigns of both Barack Obama and John McCain have deployed robocalls in recent weeks. Obama has been criticized for merely making the calls. McCain, himself smeared by robocalls in the 2000 South Carolina Republican presidential primary, has been castigated by Democrats and a handful of senior Republicans for the content of some of his, which link Obama to former Weather Underground terrorist William Ayers.
"If I called all the shots, and if I could wave a magic wand," Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin said Sunday, "I would be sitting at a kitchen table with more and more Americans, talking to them about our plan to get the economy back on track and winning the war, and not having to rely on the old conventional ways of campaigning that includes those robocalls ... (Voters) get a bit irritated with just being inundated."
The calls, legal but used sparingly in Canada, became popular in the United States during the 1996 election, Green said.
Originally, firms charged about 25 cents per call. But now they're down to four cents – and some cost less than a penny, said Shaun Dakin, founder of the National Political Do Not Contact Registry.
So budget-conscious campaigns use them. Sixty-four per cent of registered voters received an automated call in the last two weeks of the 2006 congressional mid-terms, a Pew poll reported.
This time around, some infuriated Californians have received more than 10 calls in a single day, said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.
Dakin said his group has received angry messages from people inundated with robocalls as they tried to work from home. Others have been awakened early in the morning.
"It's a very cost-effective way to get to a lot of people," said O'Connor. "But it's not very effective."
Approximately 20 states are considering restrictions on political robocalls, which are exempt from the general Do Not Call registry. Congress is likely to curtail the use of robocalls during federal elections when it returns in January.
A bipartisan bill introduced in both houses of Congress would ban calls after 9 p.m. and before 8 a.m., prohibit more than two to a person per day and prevent callers from masking their numbers.
"Robocalls have been taking a
beating in the press,
but that's because of McCain running harshly
negative robocalls," said
Gilmore, who supports the proposed
restrictions. "Our company
encourages upbeat, positive, informational,
even cheerful robocalls.
Which, in our experience, works very