John McCain needs my help. With the election looming, he's calling on his friends to contribute to his grass-roots campaign. I'm his best spokesperson, and it's never been easier to volunteer.
"Volunteers have always been the backbone of our campaign's efforts," the e-mail from the McCain campaign explains, "and in the final days of the race, we need you to pitch in and reach out to voters through our online phone bank." The campaign is asking me to call voters from my home phone and try to convince them to vote for McCain, and then enter the results of my phone calls into a computer program. Every voter I contact "will bring us one step closer to victory on Election Day."
As many observers have noted, there has been an "enthusiasm gap" between the campaigns. Obama has an army on the ground in swing states. McCain is understaffed. Obama may have been the first to use an online phone bank manned by volunteers at home, but McCain, with less money and more trouble recruiting volunteers, actually needs the gadget to work. Especially in places like Virginia, the once-red state where I live, whose 13 electoral votes could be critical to Tuesday's outcome, and where Obama is leading McCain.
I am not a McCain supporter. I am a freelance journalist. But in the next to last week of the campaign I took the McCain campaign up on its challenge to "reach out to voters." I called 100 allegedly "persuadable" voters from my home phone, and made a good-faith effort to follow the rules they provided. I stuck to the script, hewing to the words on my screen at all times, no matter what happened. I did not try to impersonate a true believer; neither was I a saboteur.
With the opening of voting just hours away, many Republicans claim, and Democrats worry, that this election season the "undecided" percentage in various polls hides a wealth of McCain support. What I learned was that cold calling strangers is a frustrating business, and that "undecided" does not necessarily mean what Republicans or Democrats think it does.
On a Saturday afternoon in October, I go to www.johnmccain.com. I fill in my e-mail address and ZIP code -- no name or address required -- thus gaining access to the Campaign Action Center, where I can earn points for recruiting friends, making calls or giving money. I click "Make Phone Calls." The instructions are simple: I have to use a home phone, and I can't make long-distance calls if my phone company will charge me extra. I can choose the state where I want to call, but I can't call before 10 a.m. or after 10 p.m.
The names and numbers on my computer screen come from the Voter Vault, the Republican National Committee's gigantic database of information on 150 million or so voters, and the brainchild of one Karl Rove. Much of the information comes from public records and data collections that can be purchased in bulk, plus any other tidbits netted through the party's own surveys. The mix includes voter registration and property records, magazine subscriptions, vehicle registrations, and membership lists for civic and professional organizations. Whatever metric is used to sort and slice all the facts and figures is a closely held secret. I am able, however, to confirm with a GOP source that the list of numbers I'm using is for likely McCain voters and undecideds -- "persuadable" voters.
The Web site feeds me numbers from Ohio and Virginia. The numbers are concentrated in three areas of Virginia, all of them heavily populated by transplants from the rest of the country: the Northern Virginia suburbs, affluent, educated and trending blue; liberal Charlottesville and environs, home of the University of Virginia; and Hampton Roads, the tangle of cities and military bases in the state's southeast corner. It is a vote-rich swing district.
I decide I should practice my script a few times before I start.
"Hello, my name is Angela and I am a volunteer calling on behalf of the McCain-Palin campaign ..."
The money paragraph goes like this:
"John McCain is the candidate with the experience I trust to bring real change to Washington. He and Sarah Palin have a plan to get our economy back on track by lowering taxes, freezing government spending, and creating new jobs for America. They'll reform Washington and Wall Street, fix our economy and break our dependence on foreign oil, which will cut prices at the pump, help keep our families safe and move our economy forward."
The speech is clunky and dry, the sort of summation you'd expect from a high school debater. But I'm glad no one's asking me to improvise. Actually, the Web site offers no instruction at all other than reading the script; no advice on how to deal with sass, or how to keep people on the phone. I just have to make sure I ask three questions, select the answers from a list of options, and record the outcome of my call using another list of options.
My hands tremble as I dial the first number. A moment passes before I wince from the familiar screech of a disconnected line "ooo wee ooo."
And that's the first trend I discover. Not just that this particular land line is dead, but that land lines in general are dead. In my first half-hour, I make 20 calls and speak to two live people. Mostly, I leave messages. Over a period of several days I make a total of 100 calls for McCain. I reach eight disconnected numbers, 12 wrong numbers (including three fax machines) and 12 unanswered lines. I get a busy signal just three times. I leave 35 messages and reach one line that will not accept incoming calls and can only be used for outgoing calls. I speak with just 26 people. Fifteen of them hang up on me within the first 30 seconds and six others last a little longer but still beg off before I can finish my spiel.
Regardless of your politics, a call from me is an intrusion. We've become accustomed to filtering all incoming communication. The plastic trinket in the kitchen is a reminder of the days when you couldn't press "ignore." And it's really, really annoying.
Most of the people you really want to hear from have your cellphone number. Twenty million American households now rely solely on cellphones, which have outnumbered land lines since 2005. And these cellphone-only voters, the folks who are missing from my call list of undecideds, may skew Democratic. Some pollsters, like Paul Maslin in this article for Salon a few months back, have suggested that the cellphone-only voters who are missing from polls are more likely to be young and minority and therefore more likely to support Obama. In Virginia, they might be among the new residents who have helped turn a red state purple in recent years.
I also discover, within my first few calls, that if I do get a live person on the other end of the call, I can't guarantee that person will understand what I'm saying. At least three times in my 100 calls I get either children or immigrants. My instructions don't say what to do when a kid answers. They also don't say what to do when you frighten and confuse an old Russian lady.
When the phone picks up I hear the crackling lilt of an elderly immigrant woman. The last name on the screen, for a home in a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, is Russian. I plow ahead, sticking zealously to my script. I get to "reform Washington" when the woman finally interrupts. "Washington?" she asks, clearly alarmed. "Excuse me. Excuse me. I no understand. My son come home two hours. What is problem?"
"No problem," I say. "No problem." I try to sound friendly and offer lighthearted reassurances of "no problem." Then I hang up the phone. She will now wait two hours for her son to show up so he can try to explain to her what happened. I feel like a jerk.
But the most important thing I take away from this whole exercise is how squishy this whole "undecided" concept turns out to be.
On my list of persuadable voters there are plenty of folks who've been persuaded that they don't like John McCain.
Some people laugh when they hear his name. A guy in Virginia Beach thinks it's funny McCain would have the gall to call him. "Oh wow," he says. "Hee, hee. You are so wrong. OK. Thank you. Bye." (Listen to this call here.)
Very few voters are outright rude. A man in Charlottesville, which voted 72 percent for Kerry in 2004, stops me in the middle of my introductory sentence. "Before you go on," he says, speaking slowly and with great self-importance, "I would never vote for John McCain or Sarah Palin. We are Democrats and I can't stand both of them." (Listen to this call here.)
Sometimes I do get real, live Republicans on the line. But they're not more likely to stay and chat. A woman in Cape Charles dispatches me with, "Honey, you already got our vote." Same thing, without the "honey," from a woman in Alexandria.
I ask a creaky-voiced man in Virginia Beach if we can count on his vote. He grunts something that sounds like "why."
"'Scuse me?" I ask.
"I say, 'Right,'" he repeats, halfway to Foghorn Leghorn. "I'm'a vote for him."
As the script instructs, I check McCain on my computer screen, and then I ask him how he'd rate his support.
Invigorated by his gruff but positive attitude, I start to ask the third and final question: "Which of the following issues will be the key issues you will be considering when you vote this November?" Before I begin the list, he interjects, "All of 'em!" I tell him he has to choose one and start reading my list. He stops me at "Economy and the Federal Budget," before I can get to "Gas Prices, National Security, Healthcare or Other." I thank him for his time, he hustles off the phone. (Listen to this call here.)
Another Virginia Beach voter is equally pro-McCain and anti-waiting for me to interview him. When I start to ask about his key issues, he interjects his two-word rationale for supporting McCain. "He's conservative!"
But I also get a number of people who seem too polite to tell me what they really think, even though what they really think is quite obvious. The first "undecided" voter I reach is not undecided.
At a number in Virginia, a woman answers. Her first and last name appear at the top of the screen, but the directions don't say whether I should make sure I have the right person, so I plunge into my speech.
The woman doesn't indulge me with a response. As I speak into silence, I wonder if she has already hung up. To myself, I sound especially nervous, lispy and young. Finally, I arrive at my first question.
"Can John McCain and Sarah Palin count on your vote this November?"
"Uh. We're not positive yet," she says. "Usually we tend to vote Democratic ... we're not entirely ..." She trails off and it's hard to make out her words. It's a strategy I will come to recognize, as voters slur their answers in the hopes that mumbling will disguise their annoyance.
But in this moment, I have a prize: my first undecided voter. On my computer screen, I click "Undecided" from the three choices on my pull-down menu, then realize the selection makes the next question hard to answer.
"Would you say that your support for your choice is strong, weak or average?"
To my surprise, she has a quick response.
"Uh ... probably strong," she says.
Yeah, right you're undecided.
She must have heard my thoughts, because she laughs and then confides, "We're probably not a good household for McCain." Then she cuts me off. "I've gotta run, OK?" she says. "I'm sorry."
Even the one person I reach who seems genuinely interested in conversation doesn't want to hurt my feelings. She answers the phone in Middletown, Ohio. When I introduce myself as a McCain volunteer, she offers her condolences.
"I'm sorry," she says. "This is what you're doing on a Monday night?"
Yep. I stifle a giggle and start reading, but she quickly interrupts. She says McCain wants to overturn Roe v. Wade, "and I have an issue with that." He also opposes stem cell research, she says, "and I have an issue with that."
I feel like I know this woman. She wears clogs, listens to NPR; she's been recycling since the '70s. I imagine her sitting over tea in her funky kitchen when I call. Perhaps she's just joking when she tells me, "Yes, I'm still an undecided at this point." I don't believe it for a second, but she defends her status. "I know what my pros are and I know what my cons are on each one," she says. I don't ask what she likes about McCain. Chitchat is not in the script.
I ask how she would rate her support. For, um, "undecided."
By the end of my experiment, I am grateful to those folks who are simply polite enough to listen, and who think of gracious ways to end our mutual discomfort.
When I ask a woman in Crozet, outside Charlottesville, if I can count on her vote, she says, "'Fraid not." The same question gets, "I'll think about it, thank you," from a man in Virginia Beach. The most inspired response is the inscrutable, "We are voting, thank you," from a woman in Ohio.
And I know that these allegedly persuadable voters, a hot commodity this November, are trying to be nice to me even though I'm probably not the first person to jangle that hard plastic antique on their kitchen wall. The last of my 100 calls that actually reaches a live person is answered by a man in Charlottesville. He cuts me off before I can say my name. "Is this about the McCain thing again?" he asks. "'Cause we're not interested. OK?" (Listen to this call here.)