A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

“Hi, I’m calling for Bernie . . . from Australia”

The US senator has pushed Hillary Clinton right to the line in the battle for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination — with a little help from a small band of Australian supporters, reports Candice Kortlever.

Words by Candice Kortlever
 
Feeling the Bern . . . in Sydney: Sanders campaigners getting set to hit the phones. PIC: Facebook

Feeling the Bern . . . in Sydney: Sanders campaigners getting set to hit the phones. PIC: Facebook

‘ Hello! I’m a volunteer for the Bernie Sanders campaign, calling voters today in preparation for the upcoming primary election.”

Although the recipient of the phone call is in the US, the call is coming from the other side of the world — from Sydney, in fact.

While American expats have been big supporters of Senator Sanders’ quest for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination (as of late March, the international Democratic vote put Sanders at 69 per cent to Clinton’s 31), foreign nationals have also expressed their support for the Senator from Vermont, including a number of Australians who are donating their time by phone banking.

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“Ninety-five per cent of what we’re doing is . . . making sure people go voting,” says Mathis Duhrsen, who manages the Facebook group Australians Supporting Bernie Sanders. The page has almost 4000 ‘likes’.

Mr Duhrsen, who is currently living in Sydney, organises phone banking parties and other meet-ups supporting the Sanders campaign, which attract an average of six-to-eight volunteers at a time.

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“People care about people in other countries, and it matters to them that they have a good leader who treats citizens well and has realistic attitudes on how to make the country a better place,” says Mr Duhrsen, a psychology student who is originally from north-west Germany.

Phone banking is not a new campaigning tool, but the ease of the internet and the simple criteria (anyone with a phone, computer and an internet connection can make calls) have made it a popular way to support the senator’s pitch.

Volunteers log into the “Bernie dialer system”, which automatically makes calls to registered Democratic voters. Volunteers record different results for each call made (did not pick up, strong Sanders supporter, do not call again, etc), with voters from particular states targeted according to the primary voting schedule. A script is provided from campaign headquarters, as well as a tutorial video for volunteers to watch beforehand.

The Bernie dialer system is mostly used in the US, but it can be used for free internationally with the aid of communication platforms such as Google Hangouts. As of Monday, the little band of Australian backers had made almost 20,000 calls to prospective US voters.

“If certain progressive ideas get up in America, this will flow through to [Australia]. So, I guess as a citizen of the planet, who feels a particular affinity with America . . . that is why the American election is so important to this Australian.” — Bernie Sanders backer Jason Kelly

“The sophistication of the phone banking process, both training via webinar and the Citrix-based IT/VOIP back-end, have impressed,” says Jason Kelly, an LGBT activist and law student from NSW who strongly supports the financial aspects of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. “The novelty of being able to participate, from Australia, charms people.”

According to Mr Duhrsen, phone banking doesn’t do much persuasion, but it helps boost the American voter turnout (currently around 1-in-3 people) by “turning abstract ideas into concrete actions”. Callers often explain the details and logistics of the voting process to voters – where the nearest voting location is, their opening hours, and what documentation voters need to bring.

Although it’s not hard to hear international accents on the phone, Mr Duhrsen says that only a handful of the 7000 voters he has called have pointed out his German accent – “maybe one in 200 at most” – and that people have been “neutral to positive” about it.

Mr Kelly agrees: “Not once have I been called out for my Aussie accent. Americans are a friendly, polite and considerate bunch.”

Mr Duhrsen finds that American Sanders fans are “a huge support” for those in other countries rooting for the candidate. “They adore us to the ground,” he says, citing positive comments, likes and even fun memes from other US-based Facebook fan pages.

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According to political scientist Raymond Orr, social media and the “abundance of information about the American election from constant technology” has played a key role in volunteer participation.

“Not only are the issues broadcast everywhere constantly, people who volunteer no doubt fantasise about the imagery of themselves they can send back to their friends. Knocking on doors, reminding people to vote, is no longer a difficult and solitary pursuit.”

Dr Orr is not convinced that volunteering from abroad is practical.

“People who get involved actively, such as in campaigning, in other people’s countries, whether right or wrong, is probably not entirely effective,” he says.

However, he sees this election as crucial for the rest of the world as well. “It matters a great deal if you think stability of international trade and security is on the line.”

Volunteer Mr Kelly sees the outcome of the election as politically crucial for Australia, as well.

“If certain progressive ideas get up in America, this will flow through to [Australia],” he says. “So, I guess as a citizen of the planet, who feels a particular affinity with America . . . that is why the American election is so important to this Australian.”

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