The phone rang yesterday afternoon. And if my shower wasn’t already running and if I wasn’t ready to step into it, I would have pulled out one of my old reporter’s notebooks and started taking notes…because I was rather astonished.
A live voice came on, and the caller announced he was about to hand me off to Dick Morris. You know Dick Morris, the former political adviser to Bill Clinton who now writes books with titles like Revolt!: How to Defeat Obama and His Socialist Policies. Well, I was handed off to Dick Morris, or rather robo-Dick Morris, and within a few short sentences, I heard an exhortation to members of the “Tea Party” and “patriots,” a reference to Citizens United, as well as the name of his book, which, you’ll note puts “Obama” and “Socialist” in the same phrase, now that “socialist” has become a really nasty word. (My book title, by contrast, refers to “Mother” and “Moderates,” which I know already puts me at a disadvantage. )
Anyway, Morris’s robo-buzzwords were enough to get me to hang up, whereupon I had several thoughts.
1) I wondered why I had received the phone call in the first place. I’m beginning to conclude that the cost of making a robocall has become so cheap that there is no longer any cost-savings associated with getting the calls to the people who are your likely supporters. In other words, it’s cheaper to just go ahead and call everyone than to make calls to targeted lists. Any review of publicly available campaign finance records would lead one to conclude that this caller was not likely to find a sympathetic ear with me.
2) Considering those sympathies, I kicked myself later for terminating the call so quickly because keeping the call going would have presumably cost more money and possibly meant there would be less money available to make more calls of this type.
3) However, since these calls were going out within 48 hours of President Obama’s announcement that Osama bin Laden had been tracked down and killed, I was surprised I had received the call at all. It didn’t take a degree in political science to predict that Obama’s approval ratings would rise in the immediate aftermath. Why waste money on this kind of call unless you know in advance that you are calling your died-in-the-wool supporters? I mean, even on Monday, perhaps there were one or two Tea Party members who were having second thoughts about their opposition to the president–at least for a day or two.
All of this leads me to conclude that these cats are rolling in so much money that they don’t have to care how they spend it. I had the same thought when I received a call last summer from the campaign of Sharron Angle, who was running for the U.S. Senate seat in Nevada against Harry Reid. Why call me, someone who did not live in Nevada and was not likely to be sympathetic? Shortly thereafter, I read that she had raised a spectacular amount of money–but was also spending it almost as fast as it came in…presumably to purchase robocalls to women in Virginia.
Elly Peterson hated fund-raising, and she hated the way the cost of political campaigns skyrocketed over her lifetime. Before she agreed to run for the U.S. Senate in 1964, she sought assurances that the men who recruited her to run would back her up with support from the party coffers. It didn’t work out that way, and she hated the degradation that her campaign manager had to go through to “beg for every cent” they received. In the end, she managed to receive 1.1 million votes and spent only $75,000. She took pride in the fact that on that budget, she had still managed to garner more votes in the state than her party’s presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater.
Later, in 1972, when Judge Mary Coleman asked Peterson to manage her campaign to become the first woman on the Michigan Supreme Court, Peterson insisted that Coleman would have to do it “her way,” on a limited budget. Coleman ended up winning on a campaign budget of only $46,000, approximately the annual salary of a justice at that time.
Peterson’s last professional campaign job was in 1976, when she served as deputy chairman of the President Ford Committee. It was not a particularly happy experience for her, but it could have been worse. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Congress passed laws seeking to reform campaign financing, and the presidential campaigns were limited to roughly one-third of what Richard M. Nixon had spent in his campaign against George McGovern four years before.
Peterson died in mid-2008, before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Citizens United ruling, further opening the floodgates of campaign dollars. My robocall was just the first drip of what I know will eventually become a flood of television ads and robocalls for the 2012 campaigns–from both ends of the political spectrum.