New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jan 21, 2012
GREENVILLE, S.C. » Darlene Kleckley was at home recovering from knee surgery one recent afternoon when she heard the phone ring. It does that a lot these days.
When her answering machine clicked on, she heard Mitt Romney's voice greeting her husband.
"He said: 'Hi, William. This is Mitt,"' recalled Kleckley, 65, a retired university administrator.
This struck her as odd for two reasons. First, her husband died in September. "And besides," she added, "no one called him William. Everybody called him Bill."
In South Carolina, not even the dead can find sanctuary from the bombardment of political messages that has hit the state with a fury.
And phone calls are not even the half of it. Beyond the traditional methods used to reach voters -- television and radio ads, direct mail and automated phone-dialing, known as robo-calling -- candidates competing for the Republican primary Saturday have put their messages into emails, text messages, websites and Twitter feeds.
Click onto Dictionary.com or a local news site like TheState.com, and colorful ads from Mitt Romney and Ron Paul flash on your screen. Check your email, and there could be a message from Rick Santorum.
Even the morning commute isn't safe. For a brief time Thursday, commuters on I-85 were caught in a four-mile traffic jam while drivers gawked at a hot-air balloon draped in Ron Paul banners.
Every four years, this small, bustling city nestled in the state's hilly northwest corner is a focus of Republican presidential candidates drawn by its large religious conservative population and its populous media market, the state's largest. But many residents said they could not recall being this overwhelmed.
"Oh, it's awful," sighed Tina Hampton, 59, an office administrator. Her mailbox is filled with glossy brochures from candidates and the "super PACs" that support them. Her television blares with sniping politicians in commercial breaks of her favorite shows. Her respite at work, an iPod Touch that plays soothing music through Pandora radio, was overtaken by Rick Perry ads. "It's a scourge," she said.
"Last night, I was trying to watch 'American Idol.' I was like, I just want to watch Steven Tyler," Hampton said. "I don't care that Newt has lied and that Santorum has lied and that Romney has lied, and that everybody is just a bunch of big, fat liars."
She added: "I'd really just like to see a coffee commercial. Seriously."
Hampton sifted through her mail Thursday, having left it unchecked for two days this week. Upon retrieval, 12 pieces of political literature were waiting for her: four from Ron Paul; four from Mitt Romney; three from the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future; and one from a group called Strong America Now, which is supporting Gingrich. "I have no idea what's in these things because they just go in the garbage," she said, pausing to glance at one of the Paul letters, which was written on letterhead that said "From the Desk of Jedd Coburn."
"Who is Jedd Coburn?" Hampton groaned. (He worked for the National Right to Work Committee, an anti-union group.)
When Cory Ezzell arrived at his downtown law office Tuesday, after a long holiday weekend, his voice mailbox was so full he thought he was facing a crisis.
But there was no emergency. Just eight separate pleas from politicians and their surrogates, most supporting Romney. One was from Sen. John McCain of Arizona lauding "my good friend Mitt Romney." Another was Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, saying that Romney "will work tirelessly to stop labor crews from coming in and controlling your economy."
One invited Ezzell to an event featuring Romney with NASCAR legend David Pearson. Paul and Santorum had left messages, too.
"Getting these calls makes my blood pressure shoot up," Ezzell, 31, said, adding that he plans to vote for Gingrich. "They are a tremendous waste of my time."
He said he still got three to four a day.
Though many voters question the wisdom of inundating them with phone calls, those who run campaigns believe such calls are effective. Contractors can dial thousands of lines at once for pennies a call. With the right demographic research, which is expensive, campaigns can zero in on certain areas where, for example, more socially conservative voters are likely to live.
Ben Leinster, 34, a lawyer in Greenville, said he and his family had been receiving 10 to 15 automated calls at home, generally concentrated between 5 and 7 p.m. He said that he had erased about six dozen of them from his voice mail, and had probably listened to only one of every 10. But he acknowledged they were leaving an impression. "At the end of the day, I think robo-calls are like negative ads in that everybody hates them, but they do work," he said. "They do plant a seed in your head. They helped solidify my support for Mitt Romney."
South Carolina is not alone in this surge. A 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of voters reported getting a recorded political call, up from 39 percent in 2008. Among Republicans, the rate was higher in 2010: 70 percent compared with 56 percent of Democrats.
Like other states, South Carolina restricts how automated calls can be made. The state attorney general's office has determined that such political calls are allowed as long as the recorded message is "delivered to an answering machine and not to a live person." If someone answers, the robo-call should automatically disconnect. The calls are prohibited between 7 p.m. and 8 a.m.
Cellphones, which used to be a safe harbor from unsolicited calls, are becoming targets, too -- not just with calls but also with text messages. One Romney supporter said he received an anonymous text last week with a number to dial. He did, and heard what was apparently a recording of Romney speaking at a 1994 debate, saying he believed "that abortion should be safe and legal in this country," the recording said -- not a message that the Romney campaign wants voters to hear.
With more ways to reach voters directly, the kind of political malfeasance that South Carolina is famous for can be more focused. On Friday, some Republicans received a fake CNN news alert claiming that Gingrich had pressured his former wife to have an abortion.
There is one way to at least reduce the deluge. Mat Jordan, 40, a pharmacy technician from Roebuck, and his wife were so tired of calls from politicians as well as telemarketers after 2008 that they now have only cellphones. "This time of year," Jordan said, "We are not missing not having a land line at all."