During the run-up to the first planned Trumpcare vote in March, Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey decided he’d had enough.
LoBiondo, who represents a southern swing district that Democrats are targeting for 2018, had watched his office be be deluged with calls from people asking him to vote against the Republican bid to replace Obamacare. And so he took to Twitter to beg his constituents to cut it out.
“My vote is a NO so please stopping calling hourly,” he wrote.
Though overshadowed by far more visible marches and town hall heckling, hundreds of thousands of Americans have rediscovered a political technique almost as old as, well, the telephone. Emails, Facebook posts, and texts have been de rigueur for more a decade, but post-Trump, voters in droves are once again communicating with their representatives via phone calls.
“It was very organic and very unexpected,” said 5 Calls’ Nick O’Neill, who launched the group with his wife from their home in the Bay Area in January. “People didn’t realize how easy it was to lobby their member of Congress.”
There is nothing new about overloaded Capitol Hill switchboards and phone call campaigns — one Tea Party group publicly shared the personal cell phone numbers of Republican congressmen in 2010 — but many congressional aides say they can’t remember a time with such consistently high call volume. Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii said a three-day period in February, when the Senate was voting on Trump’s cabinet nominees, was the busiest in Capitol switchboard history by nearly double. (Congress’ Sergeant-at-Arms declined to comment on switchboard numbers.)
To deal with the relentless ringing, many members of Congress have had to hire extra part-time help. Top aides including chief of staffs are now regularly spending time with interns to help clear out the office voicemail. And some aides to Democrats and Republicans privately admit that they have simply given up trying to answer or log constituent opinions.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin even went on the offensive after getting an extraordinary number of calls from a single constituent the first month of Trump’s presidency. Johnson’s office sent the caller a “cease and desist” letter.
But just because people are calling doesn’t mean Republican members of Congress are listening. LoBiondo may not have voted for Trumpcare, but 217 other Republicans did despite more than 300,000 calls to congressional offices protesting the bill in the weeks before it finally passed.
Republican Rep. Scott Tipton of Colorado, who is one of the Democratic Party’s top targets for defeat in 2018, has received thousands of calls this year, including 1,890 from 5 Calls, more than any other Republican in the House. Nevertheless, Tipton has largely supported Trump’s agenda, including the repeal of Obamacare.
“Does a 2 million phone call campaign mean the same thing as it would have in 1983? Probably not.”
“Any time a constituent calls, we take down their message, but it is also obvious when somebody is part of an organized call effort because they are reading off a call script,” Tipton communications director Liz Payne told VICE News. “One of the congressman’s biggest promises to his constituents was to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. I can probably guess that a lot of the people calling didn’t vote for the congressman.”
The inconvenient truth about the Trumpcare vote and other policy decisions in Congress has led activists to wonder how much of a difference the calls are actually making.
“Phone calls are really important and should be done every day, but I started thinking ‘What if the people answering were actually listening?’” said Daily Action founder Laura Moser, who launched her own campaign for the House of Representatives on May 8. “Why not replace the people answering the phone?”
Hundreds of thousands of calls have come from well-funded and established groups like MoveOn.org, the AFL-CIO, and the Center for American Progress’ Action Fund, but new groups that didn’t even exist before Nov. 9 are leading the new smartphone activism made possible by hundreds of millions of devices in voters’ pockets. They’re pulling it off with limited funds and — much like the Women’s March and Indivisible — little institutional support from establishment Democrats.
5 Calls, responsible for 1.3 million calls since January, has run its site and launched its smartphone app with less than $10,000 in donations from users. “We’re hearing agreement from a lot of other groups that there’s not a lot of institutional money flowing for these sorts of causes,” O’Neill said in an email. Some congressional offices have reached out after noticing high volumes of callers reading from 5 Calls scripts, but O’Neill says that no one from the Democratic Party has contacted him.
5 Calls, Daily Action, and an assortment of local Indivisible chapters and small Facebook groups that have popped up in the aftermath of Trump’s victory all help people identify their representative, and provide a call script and phone number.
Calls have long been considered a more effective tool than online submissions because if constituents are willing to dedicate time and effort to a call, a politician reasons they might be willing to dedicate time and effort to defeating that politician in the next election. But the fact that this current onslaught of calls often go through these digital phone banks — some of which even pay for the calls — may actually diminish the effect.
“Does a 2 million–call campaign mean the same thing as it would have in 1983? Probably not,’” said Zeynep Tufekci, author of the book “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.” “My argument isn’t against making these phone calls; it’s just not as scary to these representatives as it used to be even 10 years ago given how much easier it is to make and coordinate calls.”
Even if many Republicans have been unmoved, the phalanx of angry dialing has had an effect on some Democrats in Congress who, after expressing a measure of open-mindedness to the new president, have almost uniformly opposed Trump’s biggest agenda items. Congressional Democrats and their senior aides say that the combination of calls, emails, in-person visits, and large marches quickly made them aware that their constituents wanted fight, not compromise.
“I think there was a question hanging in the air as far as how much latitude Democrats in Congress had to appease the administration,” said John Burton, the political director of Daily Action, “and that question has probably been answered.”
Follow Alex Thompson on Twitter @AlxThomp