Volunteering at an Obama Phone Bank

On Sunday afternoon, October 19, I spent a few hours volunteering at a “phone bank” for the Obama campaign. Not because I support Obama, mind you, but simply to get an idea of what goes on at these events and to see first-hand how the process works.

“Phone bank” is a term referring to any large group of campaign volunteers who cold-call potential voters in an attempt to ensure that they will vote for a particular candidate. Traditionally, such “get out the vote” drives are held inside campaign offices, using rows of phones provided by the campaign itself. But this phone-banking event was very modernistic: It was held in a public park, and volunteers were asked to use their own cell phones to make the calls — an additional benefit to the campaign, since the volunteers thereby absorbed the long-distance phone charges.

This phone bank was open to all comers, advertised as a public event, so I showed up, cell phone in hand, to see what I could see.

At the main campaign table in the park, one of the organizers signed me up and explained the system: he handed me a couple sheets containing a list of registered voters, their phone numbers, and various codes by which to identify them. As explained below in more detail, next to each name was a series of check-boxes which I was to fill out, indicating how the call went. [I blurred out all last names and phone numbers in the photo, to protect people's privacy.]

Next the organizer handed me a “Phonebank script” which he explained I could refer to during the call. He assured me that I didn’t need to refer to the script — it was only there as a handy reminder of what should be said, and as a cue-card in case I got stage fright and froze up during the conversation.

Interestingly, the script only had instructions for what to do if the person on the line was either an Obama supporter or was undecided. I asked what we were supposed to do if the person was a McCain supporter, and he told me: If that happens, just end the call as quickly as possible and move on to the next one.

Before I actually started calling, I asked one of the many assistants who were circulating through the park a few questions about the list I had been handed, and how I was supposed to fill out the check-boxes. She explained: The first column is for those calls in which you don’t reach anyone — fill in the appropriate box indicating what happened, i.e. No answer/message machine; refused to speak to me or slammed down the phone; respondent only spoke Spanish (I was calling New Mexico, since it was a “swing state”); or the number had been disconnected. But if they answered and were willing to talk, I moved to the next column: First I should ask who they’re voting for, and check the appropriate box on the form. If they’re voting for McCain or Nader, check the box but then end the call immediately and move on to the next call. If they are Obama voters, ask them if they’ve voted early; if they haven’t, encourage them to do so; and ask if they want to become volunteers. Then go on and ask about their preference in the New Mexico senate race.

I asked what the last column meant; she told me that “EV Location” was the nearest “early voting location” where the respondent could vote before election day. I asked how we knew what the nearest location was, since we didn’t have their addresses; she said that the address of each voter was in the database, it just wasn’t printed on the handout.

She also said that I shouldn’t expect to have too many actual conversations, because most of the time I’ll only be filling out column 1: Not Home/Refused/Spanish/Wrong #. She added, “Sometimes, you’ll call all nine numbers on a sheet and not get a single answer.”

So I got to work and started making some calls on my cell phone. Turns out the volunteer was right: Almost none of the calls were successful. I had been given two sheets, each listing nine voters, and out of the 18 calls I made:

3 had no answer
4 were message machines
7 answered but didn’t want to talk or immediately hung up
2 were disconnected numbers
1 was an Obama voter (who would vote on election day but who didn’t want to volunteer)
1 was a McCain voter

Which really got me to thinking, especially in relation to various arguments I made in my recent essay The Left’s Big Blunder. It was obvious to me that the Obama campaign was using these phone banks to generate statistics for voter preferences: they compile the answers that we phone-bankers record all over the country, and come up with percentages for their “internal polls” about how many people are planning to vote for Obama, McCain, etc. In my micro-sample, it was a 50-50 split. But what concerns me are those 14 people (out of 16 calls, excluding the wrong numbers) who either didn’t answer, or who hung up after answering. Why did those seven people hang up on me? Why did they not want to be polled? I’m sure the answers are varied and unique to each person, but could it be that one or two or more of them didn’t want to have a political discussion with an Obama campaign volunteer? And the four other people who let the answering machine get the call and three who didn’t answer at all — did any of them have caller ID and not answer because a stranger was calling? Why?

I feel, as I surmised in my essay, that any polling samples generated this way are potentially way off, and exclude most voters who simply refuse to be polled. The real question is: How do those people intend to vote? Because the “unpollable registered voters” demographic is likely to be the largest demographic of all. And we have no idea how they intend to vote, nor why they refuse to be polled, and if there is some correlation between refusing to talk to an Obama campaign volunteer and refusing to vote for Obama. Could the same principle hold true for calls made by professional polling organizations?

But most disturbingly of all: The Obama campaign knows the name, phone number and address (as the assistant told me) of each person called; and we volunteers do in fact mark down the voting preferences of each individual. So, through phone banks like these, should Obama in fact become president (and even if he doesn’t), he and his team will have a pretty extensive list of everyone who voted against him.


Food for thought.

A vendor was selling these shirts at the event; I really wanted to get a clear photo of one, but instead all I got was this blurry image. Oh well! But it confirms the thesis in my earlier essay (linked above) that Obama’s supporters are doing everything they can to declare his victory a foregone conclusion.

I decided that calling two pages’ worth was enough for the day. I turned in my sheets, picked up an Obama button, exchanged pleasantries with the organizers, and went on my way.

51 Responses to “Volunteering at an Obama Phone Bank”

  1. 1pre-Boomer Marine brat on Oct 20, 2008 at 4:48 pm:

    Yes, that IS food for thought

  2. 2CyanSnowHawk on Oct 20, 2008 at 5:01 pm:

    Zombie, may I suggest that you black out, rather than pixelate the information that you do not want to reveal in the above photos. It seems to me that some of the information might be recoverable.

  3. 3hermeneutics on Oct 20, 2008 at 5:08 pm:

    Interesting, Zombie. I humbly suggest that all McCain voters and American patriots LIE to any pollster who calls — just tell him you’re a Obama fanatic. And hang up.

  4. 4gordon-bennett on Oct 20, 2008 at 5:23 pm:

    May I suggest that you repeat all the calls to the same people but this time say you are working for McCain. Or, considering that you got through so few times, try again with more sheets and again call them twice.

    It might be interesting.

  5. 5nyexpat on Oct 20, 2008 at 5:28 pm:

    The thought that the Obama campaign has such extensive documentation of who the voters are, and who they’re voting for is more than a little creepy! I suspect hermeneutics has the right answer- say I’m voting for Barry, and hang up.

  6. 6Sarah_R on Oct 20, 2008 at 5:33 pm:

    Ouch Zombie… I hope you’re not the person I invited to f*ck off when I answered the phone on Sunday…..

  7. 7CattusMagnus on Oct 20, 2008 at 5:47 pm:

    Obama wants his supporters to foot the bill for his long distance calls? Didn’t he raise something like 150 million last month?

  8. 8DangerousNate on Oct 20, 2008 at 6:04 pm:

    Scary about the lists… *shutters* “1984″ anyone?

  9. 9ProtestShooter on Oct 20, 2008 at 6:07 pm:

    This is exactly why pollsters have to correct their data for demographics, likely voters, etc. and in a close race all you really are learning from the polls is what the pollster’s likely voter model is.

  10. 10KZnextzone on Oct 20, 2008 at 6:08 pm:

    I held a McCain Palin debate party and was sent a list of numbers to call. I called 5. 2 left message; 1 don’t call me anymore; 2 wrong numbers. I don’t know where they get these databases….

  11. 11KZnextzone on Oct 20, 2008 at 6:08 pm:

    they were on my cell. But who pays long distance anymore?

  12. 12Mars Needs Neocons on Oct 20, 2008 at 8:04 pm:

    I was told by a friend of mine who is a local candidate that all of these lists are put together by a company that then sells these lists per amount of contacts. They set prices for certain numbers of names and addresses and the campaigns buy them.

    The McCain lists are nearly the same style.

  13. 13James on Oct 20, 2008 at 11:43 pm:

    This information is from the County (Local) voter registrar. The list can be purchased by anyone. When I did phone banking, we had the raw printout and had to just write on it a response code. (For the Obama event it sounds like they actually went to the trouble of reprinting from the DB*). On the list we saw, which elections they had voted in. (In Texas you can only vote in the primary of 1 party, not both. So this gave a pretty good idea which way they were leaning).

    BOTH parties use this kind of list. (There is probably a more “traditional” republican phone bank doing pretty much what zombie did. The interesting part was how Obama was expecting so much out of his supporters. When I was a poor student, I got PAID to do that).

    *Since it was a DB query (of some type), it is possible that Zombie was not calling simply Universal Voters, but maybe people already known to be: 1) Likely to vote/not-vote 2) Likely to be Republican/Democratic supporters (based on if they voted in the appropriate primary) 3. Voters that had no history and could not be categorized (more professional call bankers may be getting #1 and #2 types of voters).

    The one guy who did say he would vote for Obama, his name will goto the list for the “Get Out the Vote” list and he’ll get a call (possibly multiple) reminding him/her about the election and encouraging them to vote.

    (Again both parties do this and have this data).


  14. 14Tuan Jim on Oct 21, 2008 at 3:00 am:

    I guess the company that collects and sells your contact info isn’t covered under the “No Call Registry”? It’s convenient that the only phone I have is an out-of-area cellphone – ‘course that doesn’t stop the imbeciles coming round our apartments on Saturday afternoon with said “list”.

  15. 15pre-Boomer Marine brat on Oct 21, 2008 at 5:21 am:

    Mars Needs Neocons (#12) … here’s a GIGO *grin* regarding those phone lists
    From the Chicago Sun-Times, Oct. 21st
    Voter registration card sent to goldfish
    “Nudelman says Princess might be on that list because the family once filled in the goldfish’s name when they got a second phone line for a computer.”

  16. 16Wingnut on Oct 21, 2008 at 11:34 am:

    Wouldn’t all the cell phone costs be considered a “Campaign Contribution”?
    Wouldn’t that have to be reported to the FEC?

  17. 17A Lizard on Oct 21, 2008 at 12:44 pm:

    You were calling my county! I don’t have a landline, so I don’t think I’d be on the list….

  18. 18Tuan Jim on Oct 21, 2008 at 4:16 pm:

    Technically if it’s a Sunday it’s “Unlimited nights and weekends” right? Everyone’s a winner! Freaking cheapskates.

  19. 19Syrah on Oct 21, 2008 at 8:54 pm:

    Don A. Dillman might be a good source to answer some of your questions about how surveys work.
    Phone-banking is not polling. It is electioneering, which is different, even if it may share some of the same trappings.

  20. 20Syrah on Oct 21, 2008 at 9:04 pm:

    For Tuan TIm Re: “No Call Registry” See Q&A numbers 29 and 30 at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt107.shtm

  21. 21OldladyfromOregon on Oct 21, 2008 at 9:17 pm:

    What you experienced is identical to what a McCain phone-banker would do.

    The lists are available from the elections offices’ of each state. The lists are arranged by physical address. Then they list last known occupants. Their phone number and age. All of this info is public – you cannot be removed from this list. You can request ‘no contact’ but other than not wanting to irritate a potential voter, there is no way to get removed from the list. There is even a place on the form to mark ‘deceased’ – not to remove the citizen from the list , but to make it so the NEXT one to handle this list doesn’t waste his/her time trying to make contact.

    I did data entry for a campaign. I enter into the campaigns computers all the info that you get from phonebanking and from what canvassers get on their walks. Really boring stuff. And yet it is entered EVERYDAY, all day long. What is it for?

    Simply to make certain that as many voters as possible are contacted IN PERSON. Why? Because those voters who talk to another voter IN PERSON (especially someone they don’t know) they are MUCH MORE likely to vote for that persons’ candidate. Why? Because they feel that if someone believes in a candidate ENOUGH to go out and volunteer for him/her- that candidate must be pretty darn worthy. This is why volunteers are a very important part of every campaign. The candidates wouldn’t expend the time or huge expense of armies of volunteers and coordinators if they didn’t work.

    Re: the use of ones own cell-phones for phone banking- Long distance is usually FREE. Landlines-not so much. Why spend enormous amounts of money on calls when they CAN be made for FREE?

    One tiny bit of advise-
    Why spend your time volunteering for someone you aren’t going to support , when your candidate would WELCOME your help? Seems like a wasted opportunity to me.

  22. 22Dan-W on Oct 21, 2008 at 10:07 pm:

    Exactly like the McCain phone effort. Out of a pack of 20 leads in an Iowa district, I saw similar results as well. One obama, one just argumentative, two no longer in service, three pro-Mc, the rest gone to message. The neat thing is that the pro voters didn’t just pick up the phone, but were eager to talk. And glad to say that they were supporters. And thanked me for my help. Those respondents made the rest of the calls worth suffering through. I’m no salesman and need all the encouragement I can get, maybe these respondents felt the same way. It’s kind of lonely being a Republican these days.

  23. 23UNGN on Oct 22, 2008 at 4:43 am:

    No wonder Vin Gupta of Info-USA is a raging Democrat… They are probably paying him millions for his lists.

  24. 24Rob on Oct 22, 2008 at 7:08 am:

    I have phone banked for McCain twice already and will go several more times before the election. Unlike the Obama campaign, we actually wanted to, and did speak with Obama supporters if they were willing. Many have been fooled, no fault of theirs with the Obama lie machine cranking away with funny money and some were interested to talk. Same results on answering machines.

    A particularly slimy aspect of this is that Obama callers show as random phone numbers or names of strangers on caller ID. McCain calls are up front reporting who is making the call. BTW – Congress excluded political calls from the No-Call List. Self-serving, I know. You can be very scared if Obama wins.

  25. 25Fenris on Oct 22, 2008 at 11:46 am:

    Yea, I did something like that for now-Congressman Nick Lampson back in fall 2006. Virtually the same list, but going door to door. Since Texas, or District 22 for that matter, wasn’t a swing state by any measure, the lists I received were whittled down to “undecideds.” Again, names were collected from the county voter registrar and responses scanned into a database. For the hell of it, I should try that for my district’s 2010 campaign, on the Republican side to see if anything’s different.

  26. 26Fenris on Oct 22, 2008 at 11:48 am:

    One slight difference was that door-slammings were interpreted as “strong for Sekula-Gibbs.”

  27. 27Gregg on Oct 22, 2008 at 1:56 pm:

    I’ve gone door to door for McCain/Palin twice and may again this Friday … wish I could go down to Springfield to see Palin instead, but the tickets are sold out. I wore a McCain/Palin sticker. Around half the people weren’t home, I left literature for McCain/Palin and the Missouri Republican gubernatorial candidate at their doors. Two Obama supporters agreed to take the poll (just 5 questions) and were polite enough. Three refused, with one saying “McCain’s over the hill, he’s too old” and the other saying “Bye bye” and letting the screen door close in my face. Had a few others decline to take the poll, although they gave no indication of their preferences. If they refused to take the poll, I marked “refused,” even if they’d revealed they supported Obama.

    Most people on the list supported McCain/Palin and were glad to take the poll. I had long conversations with several of them and it was great how well-informed they were. They understood the issues and they knew the facts about Obama. I’m happy if I helped they know they aren’t alone.

  28. 28gp on Oct 22, 2008 at 7:47 pm:

    zombie, do you have a tip jar? I want to send a little money for your work unearthing Prairie Fire.

  29. 29Tuan Jim on Oct 22, 2008 at 8:01 pm:

    Syrah, thanks for that link. Glad all I have is my cellphone.

  30. 30Syrah on Oct 22, 2008 at 8:48 pm:

    Another resource on the inner workings of polling. This one takes a critical look at it from inside the profession.
    Public Opinion Research – An Honorable Profession, Warts and All
    by Harry W. O’Neill

  31. 31Bill on Oct 23, 2008 at 6:36 am:

    I wish more folks would go through the CAC documents and simply google the names and organizations which are mentioned within the body of the docs. Mike Klonsky is a former SDS/Weatherunderground member and bud with BIll Ayers. Klonsky also is a self professed communist and founder of a communist party, who also just happened to score with the CAC a nice grant for his small schools project. There are a lot of hard leftists around the Woods Foundataion and the CAC. Likewise, why has there not been more news about Ayers and Dohrn’s adopted son Chesa BOudin. Chesa is the son of Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert who were convicted of killing a brinks security guy and 2 cops. Chesa was adopted by Bill and Bernadine and eventually joined an advisory group to Hugo Chavez and co authored a book on Venezuela. The nuts don’t fall far from the tree.

    Obama is employing the Francis Fox Piven’s manufactured crisis strategy.

    Does anyone else get a sick pain in their stomach when you see that Ayers, Klonsky, Piven and others who were part of the most radical elements of the 60s have moved into higher education as a means of promoting their revolution?

    So bloody frustrating and worrisome for the Republic.

  32. 32CG on Oct 23, 2008 at 1:20 pm:


    It is not objective for you to draw such conclusions by only volunteering for one campaign. You would make more of an argument if you had also volunteered for McCain’s camp. I’m quite sure they have the same information.

    “But most disturbingly of all: The Obama campaign knows the name, phone number and address (as the assistant told me) of each person called; and we volunteers do in fact mark down the voting preferences of each individual. So, through phone banks like these, should Obama in fact become president (and even if he doesn’t), he and his team will have a pretty extensive list of everyone who voted against him.”

    Uh, wouldn’t that apply to BOTH camps and hasn’t that been the case during any election in which volunteers are used to call individuals?

    Also, there’s not always an earth-shattering reason why someone will let the answering machine pick up. Most of us have caller ID these days, and if a toll free number, or a phone number of someone is unrecognized, many will not answer the phone. I do this myself simply because I don’t want to be bothered, period.

  33. 33HibachiBiscut on Oct 23, 2008 at 9:28 pm:

    Unless the campaign was logging the minutes used by the volunteers and registering the value of those minutes as contributions, this is actually illegal. Donation of items of value to a campaign is the same as giving cash money, and the items need to be treated as such. Cellular minutes have market value.

  34. 34medstudent on Oct 27, 2008 at 11:12 pm:

    I truly cannot get excited about this. Pretty much what every campaign ever for anything does — there’s nothing new under the sun & Big Brother wasn’t invented by Obama. I think they might have been talking more to McCain supporters earlier in the campaign. Also, campaigns’ internal polling operations are totally different efforts, c’mon, I’m sure they have at least one person who took intro statistics in college. Not everything is a conspiracy, and per usual, more pictures of crazy protestors! Less weird ideology!

  35. 35Arlen Williams on Nov 2, 2008 at 1:41 am:

    Yes, this is what happens in a political campaign.

    Try doing it for the McCain/Palin campaign, eh? :-) !! God bless you, we all are learning, some one thing, others another.

  36. 36شات كتابي on Sep 27, 2010 at 10:35 am:

    Technically if it’s a Sunday it’s “Unlimited nights and weekends” right? Everyone’s a winner! Freaking cheapskates.

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    Suffice to say he’s an SF ‘character’, has been for some 20 years that I know about and AFAIK, has never harmed a soul.

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