What I learned from 650+ phone calls for Joe Biden

My hometown, Erie PA, is known for a few things: averaging 8 feet of snow a year, hosting large motorcycle rallies, and playing an oversized role in choosing the next president of the United States every four years. I was highly motivated to get involved in the campaigns of Erie democrats, and decided to try phone banking. Phone banking can be tedious, repetitive, and emotionally draining, but it is also easily one of the most important and most flexible ways to get involved in a campaign. To make my phone banking a little more interactive, I decided to log some high level data (no personal information) to see if I could find any patterns and improve.

Going Off Script

The phone banking script we were given started like this:

Hello, this is Tristrum and I’m making calls with the PA Democrats working to elect Joe Biden. Is John Johnson there?
…wait for response…

Take a moment and imagine you get a phone call from an unrecognized number and the person on the other end opens with this script. Would you hang up immediately? Would you stay on long enough to respond?

On my first day of phone banking, a Monday, I started to get the feeling that this opening was not super effective. A lot of people hung up on me before I could tell them who I was calling for. Here are the stats I recorded on that day:

As you can see, almost half of my calls resulted in hang ups. I was talking to one person for every eight calls! Two days later, on Wednesday, I phone banked for another two hours. This time, I went off-script and tried a different opening.

Is John Johnson there?
…wait for response…
Hello, this is Tristrum and I’m making calls with the PA Democrats working to elect Joe Biden…continued conversation…

My results were much better:

I talked to over twice as many people with this new script modification. Over my next several weeks of calls, I continued to use this opening and my response rate stayed well above the first day’s rate (except for on election day). This may seem like a pretty obvious improvement, but I also got a handful of respondents who were a little suspicious of the fact that I had their name and phone number. I emailed the volunteer coordinator to ask about the script opening and to give some additional feedback. The next time I phone banked, the script had been updated for everyone to start by asking for the person by name, so I guess they came to the same conclusion I did.

The Respondents Wise Up

If you lived in a battleground state during this election, chances are you received at least a handful of phone calls asking you about your voting plan. Even if you were appreciative of the first call you received, you were probably not as appreciative by call four or five. And when I called you for the eighth time in one day asking if you had gotten your mail-in ballot yet, you probably yelled and threatened to vote for Trump out of spite. Looking at the stats I recorded, its almost funny how quickly the percent of responses I got dropped week by week:

The percent of calls that resulted in a conversation (Talked) peaked at 43%, but after four weeks it had dropped down to around 16%. This was part of our mail-in voting push, so we were mostly calling people and reminding them to request their mail-in ballots, look up their dropbox location, etc. Of the people I did talk to, here is how they told me they were planning on voting:

Vote Early, in this case, includes early in-person voting, mail-in voting, and using drop boxes. The early voting deadline in PA was 10/27, so when I phone banked again on 10/28 I was not surprised to see that we had changed the list of people to call. I don’t know for sure, but I’m fairly confident our new list consisted of people that had told us they were planning on voting in-person at some point and had not been called since. This resulted in both a huge jump in the percent of people that talked to me, and a huge increase in the percent of people that told me they were voting on E-Day.

In these graphs, the remaining Vote Early respondents after 10/27 are respondents that told me they already voted.

Election Day

Making calls on election day was a wild experience. All hands were on deck, volunteers were making calls from the moment polls opened to the moment polls closed. The script was super simple — “hey, have ya voted?” The answer, resoundingly: “please leave a message after the beep.” The few people that did pick up their phones in the middle of the workday to talk to me were surprisingly appreciative. I assume that the possibility of a new president, or at least the possibility of not getting any more phone calls from PA Dems, put people in a good mood.

Final Thoughts

As a final analysis of my phone banking fun, here is a Sankey chart showing the end result of all my phone calls:

Some other fun statistics —

  • Average call length: 67 seconds
  • Longest call: 30 minutes
  • Most calls in an hour: 78 calls
  • Fewest calls in an hour: 36 calls
  • Most time wasted by a RoboKiller: 3 minutes. The bot was Santa trying to get a ride home and it was really funny.

Real Conversations with Real People

Phone banking offers a chance to do something that I feel is sorely lacking in our current isolated social landscape: a chance to talk to people you disagree with. I talked to people who thought Joe Biden was a communist. I talked to people who hated Trump, but couldn’t support Joe Biden because of his stance on abortion. I talked to people who were undecided, and were legitimately trying to make up their minds by watching the debates.

Near the end of one of my shifts I spent 30 minutes talking with a man about BLM. His dad was a cop, and he himself had worked as a security guard, and he just did not understand the movement at all. We talked past each other for awhile. I showed him statistics about police violence, arrest rates, the prison system. He told me personal stories about friends and acquaintances, some of whom had died in the line of duty. At one point, it got religious. And by the end of the call, even though neither of us had changed our minds, it felt good to connect with someone who would be on the other side of the police barrier at a protest.

I think I spend a lot of time in my own head, vilifying people that don’t share my views, and these conversations help remind me that we are all shaped by different experiences. We all need a chance to step outside our bubble and talk to people across the isle.

Thank you to Monica for proof reading, and shout out to the Western PA Dems volunteer coordinator, Andrew, for answering all my questions and running a great campaign.

Programmer

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