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What Steve Daines and Greg Gianforte won’t tell you about their town halls

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This weekend both Senator Steve Daines and Congressman Greg Gianforte admitted to the Helena Independent Record they’ve given up on holding in-person town halls.

The potential confrontation factor is too high for these public officials. Too much chance in being confronted by a Montanan trying to protect their health care, Medicare, or Medicaid, or having a discussion with Montanans trying to protect the Wilderness areas which contribute to our state’s burgeoning recreation industry.

Definitely not topics elected officials should be expected to discuss with those they represent.

Instead of town halls both Daines and Gianforte claim they get all the Montanans they can handle through telephone town halls. For the uninitiated, these are a large conference call where the office of an elected official calls a selected list of constituents. They then take questions screened by staff and answer them one at a time. Traditionally ten to twenty questions get asked while the rest of the call’s participants listen.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with telephone town halls. They’re a great way to connect with those who are willing to participate, but they’re in no way a wholesale replacement for in-person town halls.

Both Daines and Gianforte’s offices are trying to make argue this case, but in doing so they’re misrepresenting how these telephone town halls work and how many people are participating.

How do I know? I worked on Capitol Hill for several years where I scheduled, programmed, and hosted a couple dozen of these town halls.

That said… let’s address the misleading statements from this weekend’s Independent Record story starting with Gianforte:

Gianforte also has held monthly tele-town halls since wrapping up the county tour, with each call reaching about 100,000 people, Hall said.

“Since Greg represents the largest population of any House district and the second-largest in terms of geography, tele-town halls are the most efficient and effective way to connect with Montanans in every corner of the state,” Hall said.

Hall would be Travis Hall, Gianforte’s spokesperson. Before you recoil, Hall isn’t the spokesperson who put out a press release claiming reporter Ben Jacobs assaulted Gianforte. That was Shane Scanlon.

Travis is the spokesperson who claimed “no one was misled” in reference to Gianforte’s assault. So there’s a difference between the two.

We should acknowledge a truth in this statement. Travis is right this is the probably the most efficient way of talking to Montanans in every part of the state. You’re spending one hour reaching out to lots of people and could call Libby and Alzada at the same time. But here’s why this isn’t a replacement for in-person town halls…

Gianforte’s telephone town hall in no way “reaches” 100,000 people. By Gianforte’s office citing this statistic we’re led to believe the congressman speaks to one tenth of the state at the same time.

In reality this is probably the number of dials they make to join the call.

Not in no way in telephonic possibility is 100,000 the number of Montanans Gianforte talks to in a call.

There’s disconnected numbers, wrong numbers, no answers, answering machines, people who hang up right away etc. There’s also the chance Gianforte isn’t even reaching out to 100,000 people. Often in these calls you dial the same numbers multiple times to try and get people who don’t answer on the first dial to join the call on a second dial. They could be sending 100,000 total dials to 33,000 people just calling each one three or more times.

On the whole Hall isn’t incorrect to have said they “reach out to 100,000 people,” but it’s certainly misleading.

Meanwhile here’s what Daines’ office says about their telephone town halls:

On his tele-town halls, Daines emphasizes the reach of a phone call in a geographically large state. According to numbers from his staff, 27,409 people participated in his last tele-town hall on Jan. 16. That was his 20th such call. The number of who attended are people who answered the call and participated, his staff said.

Much less egregious, but still misleading.

When these calls are over the vendor conducting the call provides a report with statistics. One of those numbers is the total “participants.” However, this statistic includes lots of “technically speaking” numbers to make their service sound extremely effective.

There’s an entire section of the report which breaks out how long people “participated” in the call. For example, the time frames include “less than a minute” or “one to three minutes.” So if you get a call from Steve Daines inviting you to be on the town hall and hang up immediately, you’re considered a participant. If your answering machine records the entire call, you’re a participant. Enjoy that hour long message.

The most real metric for these calls is traditionally how many concurrent people are participating in the call. In a real town hall meeting hundreds of people don’t walk in for 30 seconds, decide this isn’t what they thought it was and leave.

In reality there’s little to no chance 27,000 people listened to Daines’ call for more than a minute.

The number he’s claiming alone is implausible. If we assume Daines calls 100,000 people, which Gianforte is claiming, this would be a 27% participation rate for his telephone town hall. If they were to be believe, one in four Montanans who get a cold call message from Daines inviting them to the call at that exact moment are stirred by their civic obligation to listen to the entire conference call.

Ask any telemarketer, campaigner, or telephone town hall enthusiast, there’s not a chance you get a 27% rate of interaction. Turns out, I’ve worked all three jobs.

It’s disappointing to see our elected officials both skirt in-person town halls and claim they’re talking to tens of thousands of Montanans when it’s just not the case.

Meanwhile, Senator Jon Tester went full hoss and told the Independent Record he does phone calls, but still prioritizes seeing Montanans in person:

“As Montana’s voice in the Senate, it is critically important that I get back as often as I can to hear directly from the folks on the ground. Don’t let anyone try to tell you the best way to do this is over the phone,” Tester said. “Telephone and online calls are easy, but nothing beats meeting with Montanans eyeball to eyeball. I get some of my best ideas during actual meetings with Montanans.”

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About the author

Max Croes

Max is the founder of Power Street Strategies a political and public communications consulting firm based in Helena. You can find his very biased opinions on the Houston Rockets at The Dream Shake and his thoughts on his cats (loves them) and the Star Wars prequels (loves them even more) on Twitter @CroesFire.

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