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New Robocalls Restriction May Affect 2016 Political Campaigns

An FCC decision on Thursday allows telecoms to restrict robocalls at consumers' request—political consultants are considering the implications of the ruling.
Photo via Flickr

With the 2016 campaign getting underway, much of the politicians' talk will be anti-Washington. But yesterday a decision came down from the Federal Communications Commission that may find Washington on your side.

On Thursday, the FCC ruled in a 3-2 vote that telecommunications carriers such as Verizon or AT&T do not have to connect robocalls to your phone if you, the consumer doesn't want them. Politicians had been exempt from the Do Not Call Registry; that's still the case, but now carriers, if the consumer requests it, have the option to drop automated calls or send them to voicemail.


"We are giving the green light for robocall-blocking technology," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in a blog post last month. "The FCC wants to make it clear: telephone companies can—and in fact should—offer consumers robocall-blocking tools."

"Today we help Americans hang up on nuisance calls," Wheeler said after the FCC's decision.

Of course, there will be exceptions such as bank and credit card fraud alerts or prescription refill reminders—not unreasonable—but again, the new rules as described on the FCC's website do not allow an exemption for automated political and polling calls.

It's unclear yet how this will work, but you may hear lots fewer calls of the "Hi, I'm Jeb Bush, and I need your vote on Tuesday" variety. Or Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or Rick Perry or Martin O'Malley or Carly Fiorina or Mike Huckabee or Donald Trump.

Political consultants across the political landscape have already been mulling over the implications for their campaigns.

"If there's never another political robocall made, the Earth will keep spinning on its axis," veteran Republican political consultant Christopher Nicholas told VICE News. He was one of the early implementers of political robocalls in Pennsylvania in the 1990s.

He says robocalls along the lines of, "I'm Bill Clinton, and I'm calling to tell you why you should vote for my wife Hillary in the Pennsylvania primary," have outlived their usefulness given newer Internet and social media campaign tactics.


But the problem with the new regulations, Nicholas says, is that many polling calls are generated first with an auto dialer and only connected to a live operator when someone answers. This is done to save money, and is kind of a halfway point between fully automated robopolls and completely live polling calls.

"If you ban the use of the automated dialers, then the cost of doing survey research is going to double or triple," said Nicholas.

For example, a robopoll can cost around $6,000 for a sample of 600 people. A live-dialed poll can run more like $15,000 for the same sample size.

That may mean less polling in general, which means less information available to the public and leaders.

"In terms of the 2016 election, this potentially is a really big change," Brent Seaborn, a founding partner of Vox Populi Polling, told VICE News. Vox Populi does exclusively automated robopolls, and their entire business model is threatened by the FCC regulations.

"Any opportunity that a person has to have their voice heard, particularly in legitimate research done on the telephone is a good opportunity," Seaborn contends. He says politicians, trade associations, interest groups, and lobbies, all pay attention to surveys. and that's how they understand what's on the minds of their constituents and often make decisions.

"So, I think there's a real value in having your voice heard," Seaborn continues, "and it is, short of your ability to cast a vote, it might be the next best way to participate in the national or state political dialogue."


Not everyone can visit their congressman's office to voice their opinion, and tweeting and signing petitions only has so much impact, he argues.

"One thing that would really be valuable, is for young people to participate in these surveys because when pollsters come to brief the people making decisions on things about the attitudes of people on some sort of student loan reform, their pollsters carry a lot of weight," says Seaborn.

But not all the data from robopolls is reliable, argues Nicholas and others.

Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, the gold standard of polling data in New Hampshire for the media and political junkies alike, told VICE News that robopolls have been pretty inaccurate in the last few election cycles.

"A lot of folks think a poll is a poll is a poll, and just report the number and not worry about the methodology," says Smith. "But the methodology does matter."

Part of the problem, he says, is that the response rate to automated polls is around 1 percent, and those who do respond tend to be more ideological in nature. In other words, people who hold more extreme positions on an issue - be it gay marriage, campaign finance reform, or immigration - are more likely to respond to auto polls, making it more difficult to extrapolate the broader opinions and nuances of society.

In live polls, questions can be more layered. Live operators are also able to get more accurate data about respondents, making it easier to extrapolate a statistically relevant sample.


Smith and Seaborn, though, do both add that robopolling has improved and firms like Person to Person Polling and Vox Populi are figuring out methodology that delivers better automated results.

"I think right when you're going to see probably the greatest impact from these automated polls, that are potentially going to be banned," says Seaborn. "I think that's detrimental to have less information rather than more in the public sphere."

Smith agrees that on balance, the rule changes will mean far less polling is conducted, and it will be more expensive for those who continue to do it. But he thinks there could actually be a net increase in the quality of polling being done, and in particular more inclusion of young people.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, last year 44 percent of American households relied exclusively on cellphones. And guess which demographic is least like to have a landline? Young people.

Plus, young people respond less when reached on landlines. As Smith, Nicholas, and Seaborn all told VICE News, it's extremely easy to get senior women to participate in phone surveys, but extremely difficult to convince millennials, especially males, to participate in surveys. As a result, opinions of young Americans have carried less weight than they might have.

But there is a flipside, Smith contends, since young people are least likely of any demographic to vote.

"By excluding cellphones for a while, you were probably improving the quality of some of the polls by not interviewing those people who might tell you they are going to vote but don't actually show up on election day," says Smith.

He thinks that's changed, and young people aren't just polled on whom they plan to vote for; they are also surveyed about issues that affect policy decisions—meaning if they don't respond, they don't impact policy decisions as much.

Experts VICE News spoke with just before the ruling agreed that should the FCC rules go ahead as planned, there could be a leveling of the playing field that could give young people more of a voice. If campaigns move to live polling, that would mean polling calls to both cellphones and landlines, and therefore more young people would be reached. It doesn't guarantee they would participate in higher numbers, but at least they'd be contacted in higher relative percentages.

This political season, complaints about Washington from politicians will no doubt be mirrored by the public's complaints about the cost of a campaign. Earlier this year, Vice President Joe Biden told a Des Moines audience that the cost of a single campaign could reach $2 billion, double what Obama and Romney each spent on their 2012 campaigns. On the subject of robocalls, Nicholas says the government should be enacting rules to make the process cheaper, not more expensive.

photo via Flickr