The long read: What I learned about politics while phone-banking for the Democrats
I got into political fundraising in the autumn of 2007 because I had become sick of yelling at the TV, and I didn’t want to be one of those people who failed to put their money where their mouth was, ideologically speaking. I started with plenty of door-to-door canvassing; the transition to working the phones meant I was at least glad to be indoors during my workday. And for a brief, shining moment back when Barack Obama was still just a candidate, mass telemarketing was not only a way of raising money – it also doubled as the most compelling means of showing an enlightened reformist spirit in the money-drenched agoras of public life. Caller and donor alike were united in the vision of a better life. We were becoming the change we believed in.
Of course, we were kidding ourselves – especially those of us on the auto-dial end of the conversation. Whatever else it may achieve, political telemarketing has little to do with political reform. The media will obsessively report how much loot a particular candidate stashes in their campaign war chest, but whoever’s in command of spending that lucre will face an electorate that most likely has already made up its mind about what it wants, what it doesn’t want and what it thinks it deserves. Fundraising helps to win campaigns, sure, but it works best only when there are people around who still need to be persuaded.
Some basic misconceptions about the political fundraiser’s lot need to be cleared away. Even though I have done both, political telemarketing (AKA phone-banking) should be separated from telemarketing proper. For one thing, you are likely to make more money doing regular telemarketing than political fundraising. Second, telemarketing is a job like any other, but political fundraising demands a certain idealistic self-sacrifice. Political fundraising is not the same as selling timeshares or vacuum cleaners, although the amount of grit and grime exacted by both vocations may indeed be comparable.
The way that hourly pay and bonuses were structured in the company I signed up with in 2012, which had several large call centres around the US, is probably typical. I was hired at $8.50 (£6.50) an hour, which was then 50 cents above the Massachusetts minimum wage. But your hourly rate would fluctuate based on how much you raised compared with your fellow workers. And it would fluctuate wildly alongside the broader fortunes of the campaign you were shilling for.
On a good night, if you were at the top of the heap, you might earn about $15 an hour. But if your contributions dropped off (through no fault of your own) and others did better, you could drop back down to $10 an hour, or even back to minimum wage. Of course, the amount of money I raised in a typical day was vastly disproportional to what I took home. On an average day, I’d call roughly 30 to 40 people an hour, abrupt hang-ups included. I would expect to cajole maybe three or four into giving, at levels varying from $35 or less (we were told to refer to it as “our most grassroots pledge”) up to a few hundred bucks or more.
I might raise anywhere between $500 and $600 a shift and bring home roughly 12% of that. Whenever a campaign ended, we would be encouragingly told that one out of every eight dollars raised for a particular campaign came from us. I’m no maths whizz, but that is definitely a grander way of putting it than saying that the entire company accounted for 12.5% of the money a campaigned raised.
There is a common misconception that political phone-banking is done solely by college kids making beer money in off-hours. That can be true, but by and large it is far more Dickensian than that. Burnouts and has-beens rub shoulders with screwups and also-rans. Freaks and geeks swap change for the candy machine. Ivy Leaguers debate the finer points of sports trivia with high-school dropouts. Recovering addicts, aspiring rappers, writers, actors and hustlers of all kinds are coming in to talk, all day long. While the process of selecting the optimal names and numbers to target has grown more sophisticated, the script itself hasn’t changed much. Once the shift starts, everybody’s in always-be-closing mode: talking smooth, talking back and talking trash to the donors, to the management and to each other.
Nearly everyone smokes – imagine the emotional needs of orally fixated working people who have just been screamed at for several hours – and the smoke breaks are a combination of reality TV-style grousing and plotting, group therapy session and recess. More than a few people around you have done time – and some of them happen to be very competent and talented managers. You are with them all day long, pretty much every day and it is only natural that you become a part of each other’s lives and stories. It’s the kind of job where you don’t know whether working there makes you crazy or whether you have to be crazy to work there in the first place. Make no mistake, the majority of callers are struggling to survive on little more than the kindness of strangers.
Read more: www.theguardian.com