Beware Campaign Call Tracking Statistics

The Obama campaign reported  on its blog that over 1,000,000 calls were made by Obama campaign volunteers recently. In fact, 300,000 calls were made on Saturday.  I think it’s admirable that so many Obama supporters are making all these calls on Barack’s behalf, however I think the numbers as reported are quite misleading.  I checked Hillary Clinton’s and John McCain’s websites and saw that they also allow their supporters to make phone calls on behalf of these candidates, but I did not see any press releases or blog posts reporting how many calls their volunteers have made.

Even though I don’t like it when strangers call me to sell something or ask my opinions, I made 20 calls on behalf of Senator Obama on Friday.  Before telling you about the results of these calls, it might be useful if I describe Obama’s online calling tool.  After volunteering to call, you can pick which state you want to call people in.  The current choices are the states with March 4th primaries: Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont.  After picking a choice, you are given a list of 20 names (first names only) and a preview call script.  As you click on each name, you see their phone number and an HTML form with buttons where you can indicate the results of your call and answers to your questions.

Obama Online Calling Tool Screenshot - 60 percent

Obama’s campaign maintains lists for each state showing who has made the most calls and gives volunteers 1 point for each call they make regardless of whether or not they actually spoke with anyone.  Points are also given to Obama supporters each time they log on to the Obama website, for each blog post they write, for each blog comment they write, and probably for other things.  (I currently have 475 points and am in 8,829thplace amongst all Obama supporters.  That might not sound impressive, but I started out in 37,422nd place.)  This is very smart of the campaign since it encourages volunteers to make more calls out of a desire to increase their points total and ranking.

I think it’s great that the campaigns are making it possible for their grassroots supporters to participate in their campaigns from the comfort of their own homes.  These online calling tools are especially effective for people like me who have fixed-price unlimited long-distance calling plans like Vonage since it doesn’t cost anything to make these calls other than our time.  The internet is clearly having a very positive impact on our democratic system in terms of increased participation from people across the board — in donations, volunteer activities, blogging, and (most importantly) increased voter turnout.  But how effective are these calling tools?

Of the 20 calls I made for the Obama campaign, 12 reached voice mail and 4 were wrong numbers, so I only actually spoke with 4 people. Of these, 2 hung up on me, 1 said they were unlikely to vote for either Obama or Clinton, and 1 said they were undecided. So, only 5% of my calls had any chance of making a positive impact for Obama.  (Note that the Obama campaign instructs volunteers to not leave messages when they reach voice mail.) I did call in the middle of the day when many people were at work.  It is likely that callers do reach more people in the evening and on weekends (even though many people called will still screen calls with caller ID if they are home), but that doesn’t really affect my argument here.

Even if 15% of the calls actually result in a conversation with a person on the other end, polls show that 90% of people have already made up their minds.  So, only 1.5% of the calls made would actually have a chance of effecting someone’s vote.  So, of the 1,000,000 calls made by Obama supporters, probably only 15,000 of these have actually had a chance of affecting votes.  (The calls do also serve the purpose of encouraging people who are in favor of the candidate to vote early or go to the polls on the day of the election.)

I’m not suggesting that supporters of the candidates shouldn’t make these calls or that they are not helpful to the campaigns (when the volunteers actually manages to speak to someone), but I think the numbers as reported are not very useful and are really just a campaign gimmick designed to create the impression that the calling effort is more successful than it really is.  Of course, I do not expect the campaigns to change the way they track these calls since it’s in their interest to report higher numbers, but you should view the reported numbers with a lot of skepticism.


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One Response to “Beware Campaign Call Tracking Statistics”

  1. Cold calls « The Learning Curve Says:

    […] this post gives an interesting look into the reality of cold calling for Obama, and how the Obama campaign has implemented web technology to organize the effort. It looks neat. […]

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