Published January 19, 2012
COLUMBIA, S.C. – First, the TV ads. Then, the mailers. And now, in the final days before South Carolina's primary, the pitches are coming ever more frequently by phone: Vote for me over the other guys — and here's why.
To a seemingly far greater degree than in Iowa and New Hampshire, Republican presidential candidates and their allies are peppering voters in South Carolina with pre-recorded phone messages, called robocalls in shorthand.
"If you're a Republican in the broadest sense, there is only one place to go right now and that's Mitt Romney," says a Romney message using rival Rick Santorum's 2008 endorsement to plug the former Massachusetts governor and GOP front-runner.
In another, a woman from Massachusetts vouches for Romney's credentials opposing abortion, saying: "I've seen him facing down hostile lawmakers every time they tried to fight their pro-choice agenda. ... He worked hard for our cause in Massachusetts and he deserves pro-life support."
Romney also talks up Santorum's earmarks, the special federal spending that brings taxpayer dollars back to politicians' districts. And top Romney surrogates like Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley are calling on his behalf, urging voters to turn out for campaign events and at the polls.
It's not just Romney.
There's also the Leesville pastor who twangs through a script noting that Rep. Ron Paul, an obstetrician before he became a congressman, delivered a lot of babies and will keep federal judges out of abortion issues. There's the one where Paul drops a big name: tea party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who is publicly neutral in this year's presidential race, saying the Texas congressman is right about limiting federal government and an unaccountable Federal Reserve. "And more and more we can see that what he's been talking about is true," DeMint says.
Newt Gingrich has been assailing Romney via voice message. Santorum, meanwhile, has tried to take the high road, condemning "these kind of smear campaigns and these smarmy robocalls."
Federal law prohibits commercial automated calls but makes exceptions for politics and marketing. In the political realm, there are requirements — seldom enforced — that prevent campaigns from spoofing or faking the caller ID information. Campaigns also must disclose who is paying for the call.
In South Carolina, an attorney general's opinion says the recorded automated calls can't be made to a live human being; but it is OK for the recorded message to be left on voice mail. So that explains why in many cases, people who pick up their phones often are greeted with hang-ups.
In some cases, the level of calls is so heavy that some South Carolina Republicans have reported getting several a day in the run-up to Saturday's primary.
There's a risk to the calls: Voters may find them annoying and be turned off by the flood of messages filling voice mail boxes.
"All the evidence shows they don't work at all," said Shaun Dakin, founder of the National Political Do Not Contact Registry. He says some people refuse to vote for candidates who use automated telephone pitches and says he's been hearing plenty of complaints about Romney, in particular, burning up phone lines.
"Romney, I think, is getting four or five a day out and these people are saying, 'I'm not going to vote for him,'" Dakin said.
For all the complaints about such calls, campaigns find them an effective tool.
"They are the cheapest and quickest way to deliver a message to a targeted audience," said Wesley Donehue, a Columbia political consultant who estimated that hundreds of thousands of calls can go out in minutes for less than a nickel each. Conversely, he said, a piece of mail bashing a candidate may cost 60 cents each and take days to reach its audience.
In a world where mud flies, "that's dirt cheap," Donehue said.
They're also a way to precisely target a message to a voter with a specific set of attributes.
"We know who that person is on the other end of the line," including age, gender, where they live and voting history, said Walter Whetsell, a Columbia political consultant who advises Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
And they're a tool campaigns use to attack their opponents under the radar, far beyond the scope of the media.
National Political Do Not Contact Registry: http://www.stoppoliticalcalls.org
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