Prerecorded Political Messages Are in Vogue, for Now

Once an oddity in politics, prerecorded messages have become a staple of the political campaigner's arsenal, as became evident in the run-up to the midterm congressional elections Nov. 5.

However, how long those automated outbound calls, known as “phone blasts” and “robo-calls” in political circles, will remain effective is a subject of debate among political analysts.

It's unclear how many of these messages were sent by political candidates. The anecdotal evidence is that most candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives tried them.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said that in his tour of key election states for his upcoming book “Midterm Madness” on the past year's political campaigning, he found use of prerecorded messages to be nearly universal. Most popular were calls using voiceovers from well-known political figures.

“Everyone I ran into had these calls,” Sabato said. “Bill Clinton, George Bush, Laura Bush, Jesse Jackson. They were all in it.”

Political campaigners have embraced the prerecorded message as a tool because of its affordability, said Michael Goldman, a Boston-area political consultant. At 6 cents to 10 cents per call, prerecorded messages give candidates a lot of bang for their campaign bucks.

The trouble is that the calls have become nearly omnipresent, leading to market oversaturation and voter antipathy, Goldman said. He estimated that in Massachusetts, where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shannon O'Brien and Republican candidate and eventual victor Mitt Romney used phone blasts, voters may have gotten prerecorded calls as many as nine times.

“They were one of the most annoying things in this last election cycle,” Goldman said of the calls.

One organization planning to use prerecorded messaging again is the Democratic National Committee, which in December 2001 hired SoundBite Communications, Burlington, MA, to broadcast a message recorded by former President Bill Clinton. The message went to previous DNC donors as part of a membership renewal campaign, said Dave Dogan, DNC marketing director.

Clinton's message advised DNC donors to expect a renewal package in the mail and urged them to donate generously. The messages boosted contributions 30 percent, Dogan said.

“It really primes them to keep a lookout for their membership renewal,” he said.

Clinton will be featured again in this year's donor renewal campaign, Dogan said. In the future, the Democrats may call on figures such as Sen. Hillary Clinton, James Carville and the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate to lend their recorded voices to fundraising efforts.

However, the most common use of prerecorded messages in the past election was for get-out-the-vote drives, Sabato said. Typically, candidates send messages within a day or two of the election as a last-ditch effort to spur supporters to go to the polls.

“You don't want to waste something like this in September,” Sabato said. “Really, it's best as a motivational tool in the last week of the campaign.”

Sabato and Goldman predicted that campaigners would see results decline in some regions as the novelty of receiving a call from a famous voice wears off. Yet neither expected the calls to go away. Political campaign fads, like fashions, tend to come back into style, and after 2006 prerecorded messages may be the rave again, Sabato said.

Though skeptics might doubt their effectiveness, there is evidence the messages work. Sabato talked with a senior citizen who received a prerecorded call voiced by first lady Laura Bush in support of Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican incumbent who fended off a tough Democratic challenger for her House of Representatives seat in West Virginia. The senior citizen told Sabato that Laura Bush was “such a sweet lady” for calling.

“It's the most impersonal personalization,” Sabato said. “But it works, at least for some people.”

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