Do Robocalls Work?

Let's just say that robocalling is the STP of political campaigning -- added to the plan because it's cheap and oh by the way we've been told it works.

The Census Bureau tells us that only 37 percent of US households have land-lines, and 70 percent of those are unlisted.

Do the math, and that leaves 16 percent of households with listed phones. In a Congressional district with 500,000 voters, that would be about 47,000 households. (At 1.7 voters per household.) At four cents a call, you can reach them for $1,880.

Wow. That's cheap, right?

Well, not exactly. (To borrow a line from the car-rental commercial).

How many robocalls go directly to voice mail? (About half.) How many residential phones are programmed to block known telemarketing numbers? (No telling.) Of those that are answered, how many hang up? (About half, according to industry statistics.) How many other candidates are robocalling as well? (All of them.)

Do the math. That leaves fewer than 10,000 automated calls that are given more than 10 seconds (out of a district with half a million registered voters!). And with every other candidate robocalling as well, your brilliantly-crafted appeal is rendered as little more than discordant noise to those already awash in auto-call messages.

When you consider all of this, the cost-per-contact becomes much higher than 4 cents; perhaps 40 or 50 cents when you estimate the fraction of calls that are actually heard. That puts robocalling in the same price range as direct mail.

The way to influence voters is to reach them personally (and respectfully) with a message they'll appreciate. Robocalling does neither. Instead of reaching a fifth of your households for the bargain-basement price of $1,900, you've merely wasted that sum just to become a general nuisance to relatively few. When a person hears your robocall script, the message they're hearing is that a) you don't think enough of them to ask in person, and b) you think they're dumb enough to act on a recorded message. It's disrespect on a grand scale. Fortunately, every other candidate is robocalling as well so there won't be a negative reaction to worry about. The effect will be merely ... nil.

The best strategy would be to let your opponent do the robocalling. And then, late in the game, include a "WE DON'T ROBOCALL" banner on your advertising. (Listed numbers can be matched to your voter file. Which means you'll know exactly who's being bombarded with automatic calls. Perhaps a mailing ...)

That will get you noticed!