Rebecca Lowe Coulson is a freelance writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
Ahead of last week’s by-elections, a somewhat specific request went round one of the many Conservative campaigning email lists. Sent by the “Call Centre and Home Calling Coordinator”, the suggestion was that “if everyone who receives this email made just 85 calls this weekend, we’d reach our calling targets in an hour”. Just 85! With Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central days away, and both technically still up for grabs, attempts to militarise the membership were unsurprising. Was cold calling the answer, however? Is it ever?
During the late 1990s, an American study comparing the effectiveness of “personal canvassing” (face-to-face contact, as a result of door-knocking), direct mail, and phone calls, claimed that “calls from professional phone banks were even less effective than direct mail at increasing voter turnout”. It found personal canvassing to increase the likelihood of voter turnout by almost nine per cent, delivery to lag behind at 0.5 per cent per piece of direct mail, and that “there was no indication that telephone appeals raised turnout”.
“But our phone canvassing is highly personal”, last week’s Conservative campaigner might’ve countered: “We’re just as intimate on the phone as on the doorstep!”. And I’m sure the style of their calls was completely different from those of the telemarketing firm employed by the administrators of the ’90s’ study. Indeed, whilst phone banking – coordinated volunteer calling – is as common in the States as here, friends I was staying with over the election there last November played me some of the automated campaign messages they’d screened on to their answer machine. It was robot voices, telling you: “It’s him! He’s your guy. It’s tomorrow! I don’t need you to do anything for me but remember that, ok?”
Perhaps there’s sometimes something to be said for that as a last-ditch get-out-the-vote tool, but what about the conversations that the Call Centre and Home Calling Coordinator asked us to initiate? Those calls made by anyone whom CCHQ has any leverage over whatsoever, on pain of eternal damnation. Do they have value, aside from proving the commitment of the person dialling?
My instinct is to be dubious: experience tells me that people enjoy cold calls even less than unexpected Saturday-morning visitors. Not that it’s about what they “enjoy’” of course: you want them to vote for you (above your competitors), not invite you in for brunch.
I don’t buy those endless CCHQ calling scripts, either: “Of these 23 options, which is most important to you? Great! Can you now rank them for me, scoring your past and present favourableness towards them out of ten?”. I’m sure that’s ideally suited to assessing crucial voting intentions, but it’s unsurprising that it’s even harder to get people to comply over the phone than on the doorstep.
Then there’s the question of calling lists. I hate subjective generalisations, but the times I phone-canvassed – during by-elections, back in the run-up to 2015, when my soul was still ransomed, too – I had a pretty bad ratio of useful responses to calls-that-left-me-feeling-dreadful-because-the-person-I’d-asked-to-speak-with-couldn’t-come-to-the-phone-because-they’d-died-a-while-ago. And there were the respondents who were helpful, but turned out – near the end of the call – to live just outside of the constituency. And the ridiculous proportion who’d already been called so many times by a Conservative (or anyone political at all) that they never wanted to speak with one again. Maybe I was unlucky; my sample size, was certainly – at best – limited. And I do understand how this formulaic approach differs from that of an informed local campaigner or representative making individuated calls around their carefully-coordinated patch.
All that said, surely a main reason why we don’t bother with landlines any more is our hatred of cold calling. Aside from lonely older people (who’ll probably be voting Conservative, anyway), does anybody find such a thing positive, or even acceptable? When was the last time you answered your landline? (Not the one at work; the one in your home, which you had installed solely to get fibre-fast broadband.) Actually, when was the last time you talked to anyone on the phone at all – out of preference? Or better, over what period of time did you make and receive your last meaningful (long enough to learn a voting intention) 85 calls?
Texting, email, Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, whatever’s good for encryption these days – fine. (Not, of course, that, as I’ve written before, elsewhere, most of those allow you to evade campaign spam, either.) But actual calls? Let’s think. Well, I had a great hour-long phone conversation with one of my favourite Durham people the other night. That was significant in its abnormality, however: we message regularly, but the ’90s’ phone-chat heyday – in which we and a third friend devised how to do BT three-way calling in a way that worked on my parents’ old (oh so cool) rotary-dial phone – is over. And, ok, there’s FaceTime – which I use every so often for late-night Alex Bellos races with a physicist friend who’s a fellow insomniac – but you’re not going to take a video call from some random politico, are you?
“Stoke and Copeland were too far away, and I needed to do something!”, you shout. Was it helpful? I reply. No criticism; I’m just interested. If telephone appeals had a negligible effect in 1998, what about today? More recent research – also from the States, admittedly – suggests that, while “being reached by a commercial phone bank for a GOTV call boosts turnout by less than one percentage point”, a “successful completed volunteer call appears substantially more effective, raising turnout by nearly three percentage points”. Similarly, a British study assessing the impact of parties’ 2015 campaign strategies points out that while “e-campaigning has become more important […] the effects of the human touch are still significantly greater”.
So we’re back to the benefits of the ‘personal’, you smile. And, less facetiously, I do get that there are many issues here. Time-frame, long-term campaigning versus shorter, GOTV urgency, approach, types of persuasion, purpose, gaining volunteers versus damage limitation – these things all need specific consideration, and/or are likely to inspire specific results, in themselves.
Nonetheless, when faced with the Call Centre and Home Calling Coordinator’s call to action – ‘You have six days to leave your mark on this campaign. What are you going to do to make a difference?’ – what do you do? I’m not convinced that cold calling’s the answer, and I’ll give you a tenner if Gorton’s the last by-election we see this year. So, what’s the place of the landline, today? I’d really like to know. Could it be that the question really is: is something better than nothing?