Phoning folks

Phone banking. My first day of training I was completely hung over from overwork, coming off a 20hr day with only four hours sleep. It was scheduled to start 10am at 2278 Market St: a 30 minute car ride, 10 minute Muni ride and two-block walk from my apartment. I was going alone, I didn’t know what exactly I’d be doing and the idea of calling strangers to talk about a highly charged political issue didn’t sound like fun. I almost didn’t go, but…

Back in August 2008, polling numbers showed 54% of Californians opposed Proposition 8. Then Yes on 8 stepped up their campaign and really put the scare in people. October polls showed the Yes on 8 ads were so effective they had eroded No on 8’s lead and split voters down the middle. As a result, the No on 8 campaign finally switched off auto-pilot and started seriously campaigning. When I called them to ask what I could do, they said they needed people on the phone banks, so I signed up.

The office. No on 8’s office was a large, rented space situated over a costume shop near Market and Noe. Only a couple blocks from Castro, the neighborhood had rainbow flags and No on 8 posters in most shop windows. Inside, volunteers greeted me, took my name and asked me to fill out a name badge. I stuck my name on my shirt and roamed the room.

Just about all the wall space in the t-shaped room was covered by campaign posters, sign up sheets, inspirational slogans, daily goals and such. Most signs had that eager look of high school pep rally banners (lots of butcher paper and bubbly letters written with colorful super-sized markers or paint). In one corner of the room, people were set up doing data entry with rows of laptops and stacks of paper. In another corner there were several round tables with dozens of laptops exploding with cables reaching toward a network hub protected by yellow caution tape. That was the call center and a few people were already sitting there, working their cells phones. At another end of the room were a couple donated couches (they would later get signs: “burnout recovery area”), a couple collapsible tables and rows of folding chairs facing an easel. That looked like a staging area of sorts.

The people. There were more people there and more energy in the room than I expected. Most folks were in their twenties with a handful my age and older. Most of us milled about, taking in the room, casually sizing each other up, anxious to get busy. I introduced myself here and there but was terrible at small talk as usual. At some point I saw a suited man surrounded by handshakes and smiles and realized it was Mark Leno. I absentmindedly thought, “How nice that he’s going to volunteer with us!” Finally, the staff herded us to the staging area and informed us “We have some special guests today to get us started: Mark Leno, Tom Ammiano and Gavin Newsom.”

Okay, quick reality check: I actually can’t remember if that was the day all three speakers were there. Saturday mornings, it turned out, usually started as mini-rallies to get volunteers fired up. I saw Mark Leno three times, Tom Ammiano twice and Gavin Newsom twice, but I lost track of which days they came in. The SF Gay Men’s Chorus came in one day. Even one of Nancy Pelosi’s staffers took time off from D.C. and gave us a pep talk the Saturday before the election. Tom Ammiano was funny as expected (he used to be a comedian before he was a City Supervisor). Gavin was tremendously supportive as expected (I can’t help but like him: in spite of his political and personal snafus, as Mayor he’s been a committed supporter and risk taker). Mark Leno, who I didn’t know much about, impressed me the most. He was warm and generous with the volunteers and a stellar speaker. Anyway, whoever was really there that first day got volunteers cheering and rearing to go.

The rules. After the mini-rally, No on 8’s phone banking coordinators, Dani and Gary, walked us through our goals, our script and then role-played several caller scenarios. Basically, our job was to to “ID” voters. We would navigate conversations using the script like a choose-your-own adventure, with each step bringing us closer to learning if a voter wanted to steal away our rights or not. It was a weird process. For supporters, we gave our thanks and asked if defeating 8 was a high priority for them. If it was, we asked if they could donate time or money. For undecided voters, we helped dispel myths from Yes on 8’s ads (about children and religious freedom, mainly) and asked if we could send them more information. For voters who were Yes on 8, our job was not to change minds or argue, but to thank them for their time and hang up. For each call we would ID the voter in the computer and keep a tally on paper. Categories were 1 for active supporters who volunteered or made a donation, 2 for supporters, 3 for undecided (with sub-categories like “hasn’t done the research”, “religious concerns”), 4 for opponents and 5 for active opponents who told us they were volunteering for or donating money to the opposition. We were asked to ring a bell once for #2 voters, twice for #1 voters and to wave a hand in the air as a silent “congrats” whenever we heard a bell ring (anything to the keep the mood positive and the team spirit alive, I suppose). And with that, we were off to the tables and laptops to start calling!

The voters. There were a surprising number of voters who didn’t know what Prop 8 was. Many folks knew it had something to do with gay marriage, but didn’t know much more. Some knew it was related to gay-marriage but also linked it to “teaching gay stuff in school” or “revoking the rights of churches”. Our job was to explain it in broad terms and encourage them to vote no (I can’t remember the exact spiel, but somewhere along the line it included something like: “How do you feel about same-sex couples getting married? …Regardless of how you feel about same-sex marriage, we believe it’s unfair and wrong to treat same-sex couples differently under the law. …Please support equal rights and vote No on Prop 8.” Etc, etc.

There were also a surprising number of “wrong-way” voters: people who would say “Yes! I support gay marriage and that’s why I’m voting Yes on Prop 8”. For those folks we had to explain what a Yes vote meant. This problem was big enough that campaign polling numbers showed a whopping 10% of our supporters were wrong-way voters. This led to a script change targeting supporters and making sure they understood to vote “No”. On the flip side, I also occasionally talked with wrong-way voting opponents who would say, “I don’t want that gay stuff in my schools, that’s why I’m voting No!” I simply thanked those folks for their time and hung up.

Then there were our supportive No voters (Ring! Hand in the air!). Even among supporters, I was surprised at the range of responses. One man with a raspy voice and wet cough thanked me for volunteering and told me he fought The Man during anti-war protests in the 60’s and thought government should stay out of people’s lives. One lady with a feathery, frail voice thought it was nobody’s business what The Gays did and they should be able to get married like everyone else. “And I’m 90 years old,” she added. There were a handful of supporters who said they were voting No because they had someone gay in their family (“my sister”, “my son”, “my daughter”). And occasionally I’d reach an actual gay person: One spunky, clearly queer guy laughed when I gave my pitch and said “Duh!” One gal said she and her partner were thankful we were volunteering and then apologized for being unable to volunteer herself (“I have trouble standing these days”). But the vast majority of supporters were more reserved and less talky. Usually, they would simply say, “I’m voting No, thanks” and leave it at that. Sometimes they’d feel compelled to also inform they were straight, in case I had any funny ideas. One lady actually said, “I’m voting No, but I can’t talk about this right now, my kids are in the room.”

There were also a handful of random voter responses. One lady very politely said, “I’m not going to tell you how I vote, that’s why they put curtains on the booths.” Quite a few folks said simply, “It’s none of your business” and hung up. (Both those types were ID’ed as “Refused to State”; I don’t know if they got callbacks or were left alone after that.) Then there were a lot of spouses who refused to hand the phone over. “I vote for the both of us so just tell me whatever you were going to tell him.” Then I’d explain we were only allowed to talk with the voter named on our call list. There were also a couple calls that went to people who had moved across timezones and forgot to update their voter registration: “You can’t call this late, it’s almost midnight!” Or calls to underage kids who’s parents must have used that number for their own voter registration…

Finally, of course, there were were our opponents. Fortunately, given our directions, we didn’t have to interact with these folks too much. But it was amazing how quickly and clearly they could make their distaste known. Usually they’d make a disgusted noise as soon as they understood who I was and then either hang up straight-away or say with defiance “We’re voting Yes!” and then hang up. “You people”, “Oh that filfth”, “Disgusting” and other variations were all things I heard. Several times I got the Lecturer: “Here’s why you’re going to hell” or “Here’s how you can still be saved” or “You need a civics lesson about special rights”. I learned to politely say thank you and hang up as they continued talking. Then there were voters who were polite and courteous when saying they planned to vote “Yes.” One lady even apologized for her vote but clarified she had to vote her conscience anyway. It was difficult not to engage these folks and try to understand exactly where they were coming from, what it was they were afraid of losing. It was disconcerting to experience first hand just how many people didn’t want to see me share the same rights they have.

Debrief. At the end of each night, volunteers met back at the staging area and the staff did a debrief of the day’s work. They gave us the breakdown of tallies and after the numbers asked if anyone had good calls they wanted to share or bad calls they wanted to get off their chest. They gave us a quick campaign update, thanked us for our time, encouraged us to return and reminded us how critical it was the campaign raise more money. Aha! The debrief was Staffers’ turn to do an “ask” of the volunteers!

The big ask. Staffers usually asked for donations starting from $500 and going down to “even $5 from your wallet, why not skip a coffee for a good cause?” I was already giving my time and I’d already donated money once online and once in person, so I aimed to resist giving more. And I held out for that, except for one night.

A young early twenties staffer named Michael came up and told us his story. He quit his job to join the campaign and wouldn’t have a job after November 4th. Still he felt he wasn’t doing enough. So even though he was financially strapped, he decided he couldn’t live with himself if, on November 4th, Prop8 succeeded and he felt, “I could have done more.” (This is a sentiment that motivated many volunteers I believe.) So he said he would donate $1000 that night if he could get two matching donations of $1000 each. This was on top of a matching contribution another donor was doing that week. The other staffers looked shocked at this announcement and, frankly, a little worried and one of them joked “Is anyone here going to help Michael spend his entire life savings?” There was a long bit of silence in the room. Usually, people end up making $100 or $50 donations, so $1000 was a lot to ask for. Finally a guy in the row in front of me raised his hand. Half down! Some more awkward silence and nervous feet shuffling and… Finally! Another, ahem, chump offered to give up the other $1000. So with all the matching done, Staff Michael’s $1000, stretched to $6000. To put things into perspective, if I remember correctly, that equaled 12 primetime 30-second spots to help get our message out.

And finally… All-in-all I phone-banked for three and half weeks or so. I was surprised there were so few of us going in regularly (maybe 10 people I saw each time besides staff), but it was great there were so many new people each night willing to give it a try. At the beginning, tables were usually full, but by the end the whole room was full and volunteers were asked to bring their own laptops. All the staff I talked with handled everything with enthusiasm and a smile in spite of working long, crazy hours. Two staffers were especially helpful to me: Gary and a gal named Kiki who later asked me to help answer questions from new volunteers and log them into the CallFire system (a nice change of pace and a good excuse to say hi to new people).

My only disappointment with the experience was that I was unable to see “deep inside” the campaign. So I never understood who was directing strategy or how phone banking fit into the overall effort. Was it just one tiny fraction of the whole campaign that also included ads, community outreach and visibility? I like to think this effort helped narrow the margins of the vote or at least provided data that helped direct other areas of the campaign. In any case, after all that time on the phone with faceless strangers, I was looking forward to the last big volunteer push: Meeting and talking with the voters outside the polling stations on Election Day!

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