Do Robocalls Work ?

Let's just say that robocalling is the STP of political campaigning -- added to the plan because it's easy, cheap and we're told it works.

Remember STP? It was an oil additive used by backyard mechanics of the 1950s through the 80s. "Five quarts, a filter and a can of STP" was the call heard at automotive-store counters for 30 years. Its popularity was propelled by the STP logo on the hood of stock car number 43, driven by Richard Petty, the premier racer of the era. There was always a lively debate about whether it actually improved engine life. In any case its use declined with the retirement of Petty, the emergence of present-day oil technologies and the move by some manufacturers to void the warranties of engines running with additives like STP.

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

Do the math, and that leaves 21 percent of households with listed phones. In a Congressional district with 400,000 voters, that would be 56,000 households. At four cents a call, you can reach them for $2,240.

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 400,000 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 30 or 40 cents when you estimate the fraction of calls that are actually heard. That puts robocalling in the same price range as direct mail. With much less effect.

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 $2,240, 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 to 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!