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Using persuasion and a dollop of science, Clinton volunteers dial for votes

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A small army of Hillary Clinton supporters had taken over Mary Jane Wagle’s home in the Venice canals. It was nothing new for her.

Wagle, 65, a former president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, is a longtime Democrat activist. She was happy to see so many like-minded people on her couches, at her dining room table, in her study, on her staircase, in her garage, and on her spacious front deck.

The volunteers tapped numbers into their cellphones. They ran their fingers down lists. Every once in a while, a voice would rise above the chatter, “Tell me what you like about Hillary?” “Tell me what issues are important to you?”

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And, weirdly, I thought: “What time of day do you usually vote?”

This was an old-fashioned political phone bank, one of the most venerable get-out-the-vote tools in the modern politician’s bag of tricks. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump may be a master of Twitter, but even his campaign has phone banks. Talking to individual voters, as Wagle told the volunteers, “is where the rubber really hits the road.”

Using lists provided by the Clinton campaign, 52 volunteers made 2,706 calls. They know Clinton is locked in a tight California primary race with her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, and they know calling is important. Research has shown it can be critical.

Noelle Fletcher, a 37-year-old Venice therapist who also practices in county jails, had found a spot on the narrow sidewalk in front of Wagle’s house. With one hand, she pushed a stroller back and forth to pacify her 9-month-old daughter, Quinn. With her other hand, she made calls.

“Calling people is not the most fun thing to do, but it feels important,” Fletcher said. “I felt that way in the first Obama election, but now it feels even more important, if you care about our planet.”

Karen Schuler, 66, had squeezed a chair next to a marble side table in the entryway to Wagle’s dining room. “I think this helps jog people,” she said. “I’m surprised how many people are saying they’re still uncommitted.”

Pam Koslow, 71, a former Broadway producer, who had taken over an end table in the living room, said she sometimes reaches Democrats who turn out to be Sanders supporters. When that happens, she said, she thanks them, refrains from arguing, and moves on. It is imperative not to alienate Sanders fans, Wagle told her volunteers. If Clinton gets the nomination, she will need them in November.

“Bernie is very seductive,” Koslow said, who was a producer of the hit musical “Jelly’s Last Jam” with her former husband, the late Gregory Hines. “He says a lot of good things. But I love Hillary. I have a daughter and a granddaughter and I want a woman president.”

Cold-calling voters sounds like a fool’s errand. Who likes being interrupted at dinner time by a phone solicitor, even one pushing a cause you support? But social scientists have discovered that when done correctly, phone banking has the power to increase voter turnout, sometimes by margins that can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Pam Koslow, a former Broadway producer, staked out a corner of Mary Jane Wagle's Venice living room at a phone bank for Hillary Clinton.
Pam Koslow, a former Broadway producer, staked out a corner of Mary Jane Wagle’s Venice living room at a phone bank for Hillary Clinton.
(Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times )

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Researchers who study voting habits have learned that asking people to vote, or even reminding them to vote, is not an effective way to boost turnout. This was a reason I heard Wagle’s volunteers asking people what time they vote.

“The idea is to prompt people to make a plan,” said Todd Rogers, a behavioral scientist who teaches public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “Most people say they intend to vote, but only half do. It’s not that they are deceiving you, they just don’t have a plan.”

People, bless them, just don’t grasp how hard it is to follow through on their intentions.

“This kind of psychological intervention helps people follow through,” Rogers said.

In an experiment conducted during the 2008 Pennsylvania Democratic presidential primary, between Barack Obama and Clinton, Rogers and a colleague found that asking likely voters to talk about how, exactly, they planned to vote increased turnout by 4.1%. By contrast, the “standard encouragement call,” as he described it, had no impact.

In other experiments, he discovered that lamenting low turnout actually encourages voters to stay home.

“We tend to conform to the behavior of others,” Rogers said. “It’s a travesty that so few people vote, and we think we should convey this fact, which makes us angry and motivated. But most people hear that and say, ‘OK, then, it’s OK not to vote.’” (We are sheeple, not people.)

Rogers has also found that introducing the prospect of accountability — for example, telling voters, “We may call you after the election” — also increases turnout. “Bernie Sanders’ script,” he noted, “includes that now.”

Researchers have found it's not enough to ask people to vote, you have to help them visualize a plan.
Researchers have found it’s not enough to ask people to vote, you have to help them visualize a plan.
(Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times )

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At Wagle’s house, it was pretty clear that Clinton supporters know they are facing a big enthusiasm gap. In some liberal circles, they have discovered, it’s almost unfashionable to discuss their passion for Clinton, who has been demonized by both sides now for months — well, if not years.

When Tara Zaccagnino, 47, told her 23-year-old son, a UCLA student, that she had seen Clinton speak in East Los Angeles last month, he asked, “’Did you see her horns come out?’

“Can you believe he said that to me?” she asked. .

Of course. Sexism is so ingrained in this culture that people don’t know when they are parroting it. Also, unlike Sanders, who is, metaphorically at least, a shiny new object, Clinton is thoroughly familiar.

“People are very out about their support for Bernie,” said Nika Dunne, 46, a Venice stop-motion animation producer who helped organized the phone bank. “Most people who follow Hillary are very pragmatic. We don’t want to get into fights. We just want her to win.”

If Clinton beats Sanders on Tuesday, they will have the satisfaction of knowing they played a part.

Two last things: Do you know where you are voting Tuesday? And how do you plan to get there?

Volunteers at a Hillary Clinton phone bank celebrate making more than 2500 calls in two hours
Volunteers at a Hillary Clinton phone bank celebrate making more than 2500 calls in two hours
(Robin Abcarian/Los Angeles Times )


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