Day Two at the MoveOn.org Political Action beehive in downtown Oakland:
I spent about three hours calling today. The drill was the same as the other day: We were trying to get people who have volunteered to call voters in competitive congressional districts to commit to specific times to do their work. I dialed 59 numbers, using my own cellphone; part of the way the organization saves money, or optimizes its effort, or however you want to put it, is to limit the number of land lines on the premises and get people to use their own cellphone minutes. Since it was early afternoon, maybe two out of three of those calls went to answering machines. Just like the other night, I got maybe 15 people who couldn’t or wouldn’t commit to making voter phone calls. I got five people who said they’d make calls over the last five days of the campaign, tomorrow (Friday) through Tuesday.
That was an improvement over Tuesday night, though a couple of not necessarily positive issues came into focus for me:
First: Despite all the griping people are given to, there are not a whole lot of people willing to give up a few hours of their time on the off chance it might improve the situation they’re griping about. That ought to be no surprise given the reality that “high turnout” general elections aren’t wildly popular affairs. The U.S. Census Bureau says that about 215 million Americans were eligible to vote in 2004; just two-thirds of that number were registered. The turnout of eligible voters–with the nation at war, the minority party with a grudge to settle, and one of the most divisive chief executives in our history standing for re-election–was 125 million, or 58.3 percent of the eligible population. To paraphrase Captain Louis Renault, I’m shocked, shocked to find there’s no voting going on here.
Second: You’ve got to wonder whether the telephone, abused as it is by people no one wants to hear from, is really the best instrument for persuading people to get out and vote. Of the 15 or 20 people I managed to get on the phone, only two were really willing to listen to the full pitch, and they seemed predisposed to go along with the program. Of the rest, almost everyone sounded hurried and impatient. Not that I blame them. In the back of my mind, I can hear Eudora Welty’s explanation of why she didn’t stay in advertising: “It was too much like sticking pins into people to make them buy things they didn’t need or really want.” For many of us, the phone has become impersonal, and sales calls, even the high-minded political kind that you may have invited, are grating. You just wonder whether there’s a better, more personal way of getting people to sign up for the fight. (I don’t suppose we’ll be going back to the old face-to-face political machine model any time soon; though it wasn’t all bad: I’ve been told that Richard J. Daley showed up at my great-grandmother O’Malley’s wake; this was 1952, three years before he ran for mayor, and apparently it was just part of his way of getting to know the voters (the living ones, I mean).