Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

Telemarketing For Change

Fighting the US presidential election's battle for hearts and minds in the Midwest, one telephone call at a time

Hi, may I speak to Mary, please?

I’m sitting in a cubicle, staring at a computer screen and wearing a flimsy telephone headset that barely stays on my head. All around me, others are sitting in similarly drab cubicles, staring at computer screens exactly like mine, reading off the same lines I hear coming out of my mouth. This is a telemarketing centre in midtown Manhattan, eerily reminiscent of the one Burr Redding tried to run in the television series Oz.

Hi, my name is Patricia, and I’m a volunteer with ACT Ohio.

My friend Heather and I are doing our part for the Democratic party, phoning registered voters in beautiful Ohio, that mightiest of battleground states. We’ve signed up with America Coming Together (ACT), a grassroots, non-profit organization whose ostensible purpose is to educate voters and get out the vote. Its sole purpose at the moment, mind you, is defeating George W. Bush on November 2.

If you’re a Democrat living in New York City, you tend to feel lucky and useless: lucky because you’re surrounded by like-minded people, useless because there’s nobody here to court or persuade. I spent the months before the last election arguing with Nader supporters; this time—to my relief—I’ve been hard-pressed to find anyone who still claims there’s no difference between the two parties. And while protesting the Republican National Convention seemed the next natural choice, I just didn’t think it would do any good. So Heather and I are here attempting to do something, anything, that might conceivably make a difference. Heather’s actually from Ohio, so she’s hoping she gets to quiz a friend of her parents or some jock she knew in high school. Me, I’m from the nation’s coasts, with bleeding-heart liberal views sprouted in Berkeley and honed in New York. Other than one visit to Ann Arbor (which, let’s face it, doesn’t count), I’ve never even been to the Midwest.

We’re calling people with a few quick questions about the upcoming presidential election.

The interesting cross-section of volunteers—young and old, hippie-ish and corporate—has already been through a half-hour orientation process, led in muddled yet earnest fashion by Jared, a young ACT intern with Strokes-like hair. Jared, who got called into last-minute action because the regular organizer was sick, is so nervous about his presentation skills that when it’s all over, we applaud just to make him feel better. He stammers through the rundown. For now, we’re only taking voters through a brief survey of six questions, which will separate voters into categories: Kerry, Bush and undecided. After the data is compiled, any undecideds will get the follow-up full-court press. It sounds pretty simple, but seeing as how I regularly cut off telemarketers and hang up on them mid-sentence, my karma isn’t looking so good right now. I also hate cold-calling so much that it’s probably the number-one reason I’m not further along in my career. But the fact that I’m nervous about what I’m going to do just makes me feel stupid. With everything going on in the world right now, I’m nervous about calling strangers on the phone?

The telemarketing centre uses the same rapid-fire calling programs that interrupt your evening whenever you’ve just sat down to eat dinner. The computer dials scores of numbers at once, and the second somebody answers and says “Hello,” their name shows up on your screen. You don’t hear the phone ringing and you don’t hear anyone saying “Hello,” so you have to start into your spiel immediately or else they’ll hang up. The first few times, I get an answering machine. Since I can only hang up by entering a code (“MA” for “machine”) and then clicking “send,” I never manage to cut off the connection before the beep, meaning I end up leaving empty messages on machines all over Ohio. Well, almost empty. The first time this happens, I let out an audible, post-beep sigh. Oops.

Do you tend to vote Democratic or Republican in elections?

The first person who agrees to take the survey turns out to be a Republican who plans to vote Bush. My heart breaks a little bit, but I’m polite, she’s polite and the whole thing is over quickly and painlessly. Next call. One woman answers my first question—“What issue would you like the presidential candidates to address in the debates?”—with “I want same-sex marriage to be abolished.” A couple of questions later, before she tells me that President Bush is a very moral man, she lets me knows that she’s sick of the “liberal media, and Hollywood in particular,” telling her what to do. In my sterile midtown cubicle, I nod and make “mm-hmm” and “I understand” sounds. Next call.

Frankly, it comes as a bit of a shock to me that anyone takes the time to answer the survey at all. Are they keenly interested in the election or just bored? I’m so grateful to get any sort of civil response that I don’t really care what the motivation is. I still get a lot of hang-ups and plenty of brusque “I’ve got guests here” sorts of comments, but eventually I get into the rhythm of it, taking the rejections in stride. If somebody’s not home or not interested, I say thank you and move on. I’m doing that weird professional-phone-call thing I do where my voice goes up an octave and I come off sounding, to my ears anyway, like a cheerleader selling cookies at a bake sale. Heather admits to doing the same and later reports with horror that she can’t seem to stop herself from using the phrase “buh-bye.” Thank you so much for your time! Next call.

Do you approve or disapprove of the way George Bush is handling his job as president?

Over time, I sharpen my pitch, varying the script by assuring people that it’s a “very brief, six-question survey” that’ll “only take a minute.” While some people seem confused or irritated by the whole process, others seem used to this sort of thing, perhaps enjoying their status as coveted swing voters. And ACT, which I’d never heard of before it was featured in a New York Times Magazine article, is evidently doing a good job of knocking on doors and making a name for itself, at least in Ohio. An undecided voter tells me that she took the same survey the day before, from an ACT volunteer who came to her house. (She very kindly answers my questions anyway.) A Bush supporter, after completing the survey, yells out to a third party, “It’s ACT!” just before hanging up the phone.

I learn some things. I learn, for example, never to use someone’s full name; the second I stumble over the last name, my target gets wise and hangs up. Elderly people are more likely to take the survey than middle-aged people, women somewhat more likely than men. People named Mary tend to be elderly and somewhat deaf. (The lists we’re using are apparently alphabetical. For long stretches of time, we all get several Marys in a row, then Marisols, then Matthews.) Republicans are grouchy and defiant. Kerry supporters are supremely pissed off. Ohioans in general are concerned about jobs going overseas. Sometimes, people don’t remember whom they voted for in the last election. One man says he voted for neither Gore nor Bush nor Nader, but “that other guy, the one who said he was going to put money into steel here.” Another tells me he voted for Clinton in the last election, and I’m so far into the zone that it takes me a minute to realize that “Clinton” was not an option.

During a brief lull in which I’m waiting for the next call to engage, I hear Adam, the volunteer in the cubicle next to mine, saying courteously, “So except for Eisenhower, you’ve voted Democratic?"

Do you know anyone who’s lost his or her job in the last three years?

Two hours fly by, and soon Jared is calling out, “Fifteen minutes.” So far I’ve convinced around 20 percent of the people I’ve reached to take the survey. Not so surprisingly, the results are running 50-50 Bush versus Kerry, with a smattering of undecideds. But now I’ve hit a dry patch, with a string of hang-ups and blow-offs. I stay on the line, hoping for one last good call.

“Hello?” This one sounds promising: middle-aged, quick to agree to the survey, not a hint of hostility in her voice. She has the same name as one of my college friends and I make some small talk about that. As we start in on the questions, it becomes clear that she opposes Bush and is eager to talk about her views. I’m not really supposed to waste time engaging in extraneous chit-chat, but I’m desperate to end the night on a high note. I stick with her even as the room starts to empty of volunteers.

From what she’s telling me, this woman isn’t a bleeding-heart liberal or an ideological anything. She’s an electrician, grew up in a union family and has been out of work for well over a year. She thinks the country is in a terrible place right now. She thinks that Bush, while a “good Christian,” maybe “wasn’t ready” to become president. “Where are you calling from?” she asks. New York, I tell her. “Well,” she says, “I don’t know how much you know about the states you’re calling, but things in Ohio are really bad right now.” She tells me she’s gotten to the point where she wants to stand on the steps of the White House and speak out about the way things are, even though she isn’t all that articulate or eloquent. “But what can one person do?” Her impulse reminds me of Lila Lipscomb, the grieving mother from Flint in Fahrenheit 9/11, standing in front of the White House gate, railing at the government. The woman on the phone with me didn’t lose a son in Iraq and she hasn’t captured the attention of Michael Moore. Yet she is coming from the same place of futility and rage, and I am moved. “I understand completely,” I say, “and that’s why this is such an important election.” My words sound canned, rehearsed. I feel like a parrot or a fool.

“So you’re a Democrat, then?” the woman asks suddenly. I’m taken aback. I guess I’ve been taking the sympathetic stance a little too far, and I don’t want to get in trouble. “Umm, well, I’m not supposed to reveal that,” I say. “Personally, yes, I am. But officially, no. I’m not affiliated with the Democratic party or John Kerry in any way.” She laughs. “Yeah, I know you have to say that. I know there are laws.” She jokes that once the survey’s over, I should call her back to chat some more, and for an irrational split second I see myself doing just that. This woman is looking for something and I dearly want to be able to give it to her. In a way, she’s already done that for me tonight.

The room is empty now except for Heather, patiently waiting for me. It’s time to go. Almost apologetically, I take the woman through the rest of the survey and then I give her the URL of ACT’s website—something I’ve done for no one else all evening. She writes it down and carefully repeats it back to me. “You should think about volunteering,” I say. “You sound very passionate, and I think you’d be good at it.”

“Thanks,” she says. “I think I will.”