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Robocalls swamp, annoy Michigan voters

This news story was published on February 22, 2012.
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By Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press –

DETROIT — Swarms of political robocalls are sounding private Michigan phones in advance of Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary — and many folks find themselves predictably annoyed.

In Kalamazoo, Rene Johnson can’t sit down to watch the news with her Yorkshire terrier, Juneau, on her lap before the phone rings.

In Hazel Park, Nate Becker can’t figure out why the calls are coming — neither he nor his wife will vote in the GOP primary — but they could do without the phone ringing and waking up their 8-month-old son, Trent.

John Mozena, a public relations specialist in Grosse Pointe Woods, got a half-dozen or so calls during the weekend, hanging up on each as the computerized voice came on the line.

“I’ve got better things to do with my time rather than listen to attack ads,” said Mozena, 40.

Robocalls are standard fare for modern campaigns, with tens of thousands of homes being targeted through automated phone messages. Political calls are exempt from the Do Not Call Registry. And though most people say they don’t listen, someone must be paying attention.

“They tick off a lot of people, but (campaigns) wouldn’t use them if they didn’t work,” said Lansing-based consultant Craig Ruff.

In recent days, a handful of robocalls are making the rounds in Michigan. Some Detroit Free Press website readers said Tuesday that they had heard messages from former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. But most said the majority of the messages they heard were from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

His robocalls included one in which his wife, Ann Romney, spoke about her husband and another replaying Santorum’s endorsement of Mitt Romney, a Michigan native, in the 2008 presidential election. (It indicates it was from 2008).

Joe Trippi, a campaign consultant who ran Democrat Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, said robocalls are most effective when the candidate placing them is trying to suppress his rival’s vote. A voter who gets numerous calls may not listen to them all, but he or she will start to wonder whether it’s worth voting for the targeted candidate.

The advantage of robocalls is that a candidate’s opponent can’t defend himself or herself. But they can sometimes be used in shady ways: Trippi said someone placed repeated robocalls before the 2004 Iowa caucuses saying they were from the Dean campaign, and it so infuriated some voters that by the time Dean’s folks called, “they were telling us to go jump in a lake.”

Not everyone is turned off by the calls: Susan Reed, 24, of Troy is a Democratic-leaning independent who presumes the calls she has gotten from the Romney campaign were meant for her parents or her brother, who are more likely to vote in the GOP primary.

Still, she said, she found it interesting and kept listening. And when the Romney campaign called for her to take part in a telephone town hall — a relatively new political phenomenon that accounts for many of the calls being made — she listened as the candidate took and answered questions.

What about when her family gets the calls? “They tend to hang up, they’re not really interested,” she said.

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