(Tilove points out that David Vitter’s vote was never in play, and therefore he wouldn’t have received as many calls—and prompted as many busy signals—as Landrieu. “Vitter’s position on this was unambiguous and ironclad,” he said. “There would be no comparison, and very few offices in the country were as much the subject of calling as hers.”)
Perkins’s complaints didn’t come as news to Ballard, either. In November, following Beck and Limbaugh’s prostitute comments, Ballard received a spike of complaints from voters who couldn’t reach Sen. Landrieu. To test the claims that Landrieu was unreachable, Ballard conducted an experiment. He randomly called Landrieu’s Washington, D.C., office at different times of day over the course of about a month, targeting the D.C. office because “we want to talk to her directly if possible and avoid talking to flacks.” He usually got through—and if he got a busy signal, he called back later and always got someone on the line, he said.
“We checked on it and when we checked on it, we didn’t have trouble getting through,” Ballard said. “We had no special back-room numbers, we had to go through the front door the same way as everybody else. Doesn’t mean there weren’t these times you couldn’t get through because of all the calls jamming the lines. But for the most part, we had no trouble.”
The one time he really couldn’t get through at all, he said, was the day of the Family Research Council and Baton Rouge Tea Party’s march on Landrieu’s Baton Rouge office, on Dec. 22, two days before the final health care vote in the Senate. “Presumably more people were calling that day because Tony Perkins was making such a to-do about it,” Ballard said.
So that day he had the Advocate’s Washington reporter, Gerald Shields, grab Landrieu for a comment after she gave a speech on the Senate floor.
That’s when Landrieu said “Our lines have been jammed for weeks and I apologize. But no amount of jamming is going to keep me from supporting a good work for Louisiana and the nation.”
Ballard conceded that Landrieu’s other offices could have been inundated with more calls than the D.C. number he had been testing. “Maybe they were calling the New Orleans office and they really did take the phone off the hook,” he said.
In the end, he saw the phone complaints as a non-story.
“It just didn’t ring true. If y’all don’t call at the same time, you’re more likely to get through,” he said. “If we found over several days we couldn’t get through, then that would have been a story.” But they didn’t, and so the story didn’t have a lot of news value, in Ballard’s judgment.
“What would the lede be like?” he asked. “‘Five people said they couldn’t get through to Sen. Landrieu’s office and when we called we didn’t have a problem and when we told the senator about the complaints she said, ‘Gee, I don’t know why’?’ I can’t really see where the story is.”