Articles and Analysis


About Those Ugly Iowa Calls

Topics: 2008 , Push "Polls" , The 2008 Race

By now many of you know about a new outbreak of nasty phone calls in Iowa. I have to say that this episode truly puzzles me. Politico's Ben Smith reported the key details yesterday:

Two bloggers today reported receiving calls last night from a pollster testing whether John Edwards' failure to drop out to take care of his ailing wife could damage his campaign.

The pollster asked whether "desmoinesdem," a well-regarded liberal Iowa blogger, would not support Edwards because "he chose to continue the presidential campaign instead of staying home with his wife who has cancer," the blogger reported. A blogger on John Edwards campaign website, doridc, shared a similar recollection.

The two blogger/respondents also said the "survey" included negative statements about both John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, which led both to believe that the calls came from someone associated with the Obama campaign.

My initial reaction was that these calls were part of some sort of message testing rather than a so-called "push poll," and that a real message testing poll could have involved any of the Democratic campaigns. As regular readers know, a "push poll" is not a poll at all but political telemarketing -- usually an effort to spread a nasty negative message -- under the false guise of a legitimate poll. However, campaigns sometimes use real surveys to test potential negative messages for advertising. I've written more about the differences here; see also Stu Rothenberg's piece and the AAPOR statement on "push polls."

If this were a real "message test," the absence of statements about Obama or any of the other Democratic candidates does not necessarily implicate either Obama as the sponsor (or Dodd, Richardson or Biden; Marc Ambinder made a similar point yesterday). As a campaign pollster, I always included "negatives" on my own client whenever I tested potential attacks on the opposition. The idea was to try to keep some semblance of fairness and balance in the questionnaire (so respondents would not immediately hang up in anger) and to try to simulate the effects of the likely exchange of attacks that would occur if the campaign "went negative." For what it's worth, I know that Harrison Hickman, the Edwards pollster for whom I once worked, has always taken the same approach.

Ben Smith, who has been all over this story for the last 24 hours, found a real call center that uses the name "Central Research" in New York and another Central Research in Arkansas, and speculated about projects they have done in the past. However, he subsequently reached the people that run those companies and each flatly denied any involvement. He also reports that each of the Democratic campaigns - Obama, Clinton, Edwards, Biden, Dodd and Richardson - "all quickly denied this was their poll."

Puzzled, I went back and re-read the reports of the first two blogger/respondents (as well as another respondent account Smith reported this morning). All tell essentially the same story:

  • Both report being asked first about their voter preference in the Democratic caucuses, about the strength of their support for their first choice and about their second choice.
  • Both report being asked just two more questions: A three-way forced choice question asking them to choose from among three statements as the "most important reason not to support Clinton." They were then asked a similar question with two negative statements about Edwards.

And then, both bloggers report (or at least imply) that the interview ends abruptly.. "End of survey" says desmoinesdem. "There were no questions about what issues are you interested in," writes dorisdem, "or even how likely are you to caucus." Neither mentions being asked demographic questions (what is your age, race, etc.), although is it possible both simply left that part out.

If the "poll" included just the five questions above, it fits the profile of the a real so-called push poll, again, not a poll at all but a negative "advocacy call" masquerading as a legitimate survey.

The "negative statements" are also strange, and not just because of the outrageous and incendiary reference to Elizabeth Edwards' fight against cancer. The two bloggers report essentially the same statements. This is dorisdem's memory:

[They ask] why do you think Hillary Clinton is a weak candidate and gives 3 choices. A) Is a weak general election candidate. B)Is too dependent on lobbyist money. C) Won't bring change.

Then why do [you] think John Edwards is a weak candidate with 2 choices A) a weak general election candidate because his positions are too liberal B) He should be home with his wife who has cancer.

These are just not the sort of statements that I can imagine any of the campaigns wanting to "test" in this form at this stage of the campaign as potential fodder for television or direct mail advertising. Think about the ways the campaigns are criticizing each other now in speeches, online videos and debates. The statements in the calls make no reference to votes on Iraq, Iran, trade policy or double-talk in regards to Senator Clinton; nothing about hypocrisy, being too negative or "piling on" in regards to Senator Edwards.

These oddly constructed questions look mostly to me like a clumsy attempt to dress up as a "poll" the beyond-the-pale reference to Elizabeth Edwards' illness.

At very least, I find it utterly inconceivable that Harrison Hickman or the Edwards campaign had any connection to a five-question survey of this sort, and extremely implausible that it was part of any real poll conducted by anyone else.

So who would be doing this?

The bottom line is that I have no idea who is behind it, but we ought to consider another scenario as at least as plausible as the notion that this came from one of the Democratic campaigns. It is also possible that this was the work of some independent group with Republican ties that sees some value in gathering crude information about the Democratic race while fomenting ill-will and infighting in the Democratic ranks. If that was the goal, you need only read the comments under the posts of the blogger/respondents I linked to above to see evidence of just that happening.

But again, we really have no idea. It could be anyone, and we'll probably never know.

PS: Just to help clarify the record, blogger/respondent doridc makes two statements that are not quite right. First:

In polls from reputable sources they never ask for specific voters as was the case here.

Not true. Most surveys that sample from registered voter lists, including just about all of the campaigns, ask for the name on the list when they call. They can randomly select an individual in the household (from the list). Asking for a specific person by name allows them to match up the answers to actual vote history on the list for analytical purposes.

She continues:

Also they used my voter id as listed in the Iowa Democratic Party database because my full name does not fit, it is missing the last 3 letters. So it was a candidate driven call.

Not necessarily. As I understand it -- and I have this information from individuals with firsthand knowledge of the process -- the list that the Iowa Democratic Party sells to campaigns is built by appending caucus "vote history" data that they collect to the registered voter list provided by the Iowa Secretary of State. I may be wrong on thus, but I assume that if doridc's name is truncated in the file, that truncation occurred on the Secretary of State's list that is available to anyone.

UPDATE: Ben Smith links to this post along with confirmation oF one point above:

After talking to Blumenthal today, I went back to one of the respondents, "desmoinesdem," to ask her about some of these details: Was she asked about whether she plans to vote, or about her age or party affiliation. She wasn't.

Desmoinesdem has also updated her original post with another interesting observation:

In the comments, yitbos96bb suggested a possibility that hadn't occurred to me. The pollster may be testing negative messages against Hillary (the front-runner) and whomever the respondent supports. So doridc and I got the negative messages about Edwards, but perhaps if we had named a different candidate as our first choice, we would have gotten the questions about Hillary and our first choice. A Republican group paying for a poll like this might be testing to see what kind of messages would work best against Hillary and whomever Democratic respondents lean towards.

Update (11/20): More details here.



One report I read on John Edwards blog actually did ask a few more questions, such as, is there a teacher in the household?, what are your views on immigration? There were eight questions asked in that report.



I think it's telling that they called bloggers. They wanted this story to get out to make Obama look like the bad guy and Clinton and Edwards look like victims. It's not a push poll. It's a reverse push poll. Quick negative news with no fingerprints. Hillary turning up the heat.



Adam, what size tin foil hat do you wear? Seems like your current one might be on too tight.

Just because we've only heard about bloggers doesn't mean no one else was called. In fact, Ben Smith has talked to a number of other Iowa voters who were called.



This seems obviously to be a Republican dirty trick, the sort of thing that the Republican Party has been doing routinely ever since Nixon. Karl Rove, Lee Atwater, etc., succeeded because they had mastered the darker crafts of "politics," just thuggery against democracy itself.



Hello, Mark. Thanks for your commentary on these calls.

Just to confirm again, no demographic questions about age, race, family income, etc. were asked. My original blog post included every question asked in this fake poll.

Also, this was different from other fake polls Iowa caucus-goers frequently get, which are ordinary voter ID calls (they ask about your first and second choice, whether you could change your mind, and that's it--no negative messages).



So, perhaps there were no demo questions and likely caucus questions because, through the cuacus/Sec State voter lists, they knew that the respondents were likely voters and had their age, race, location, and voting history right there. They should if they're calling off the caucus list from the Iowa Dems.
It's election season! The fun is just starting...



"It is also possible that this was the work of some independent group with Republican ties that sees some value in gathering crude information about the Democratic race while fomenting ill-will and infighting in the Democratic ranks."

If that were true, then why nothing about Obama? It really does smell obvious here that this is coming from Obama's camp. Trying to say it's one of the 1-3% candidates is a lame attempt at not calling the obvious.



My wife (not a blogger) received a call like this last night. They'd been trying to reach us since Monday. Caller ID listed all zeros. When asked, She listed her first choice as Obama, and was subsequently asked the negative questions about Obama and Edwards, which led us to believe that the call was from Hillary's campaign. After reading these reports, I'm not so sure. Interestingly, among other questions, she was also asked if she supported driver's licenses for illegal immigrants in Iowa.


Mark Blumenthal:

Mike - Thank you for you comment. Could you email me? I'd like to follow up. Use the link on my name below.

Also, Willie is right: Someone calling off a list of registered voters could pull some basic demographics (gender, age, geography) from the list and could do some limited "likely voter" modeling using actual vote history. Some legitimate micro-targeters do just that.

I would have included speculation along those lines, but the odd structure and language of the questions leads me to believe the intent of these calls is to spread a message rather than test one.


Jerry Depew:

That call came to our house. My wife answered it. She now thinks that the caller asked for her by name. (She is not a blogger!)

She believes that she told the caller she would caucus for Edwards. The caller asked the same questions about Edwards and Hillary that you describe. She was also asked about the drivers license issue, if there was a teacher in the house, if there was a union member in the house and if we lived from paycheck to paycheck.

What is being "pushed" with these last four questions?



the call that I received was a bit different: after asking for whom I would caucus and then my second choice, I was asked: Of these alternatives, which is most important to you: a) that the nominee have sufficient experience to run the country, or b) that they be electable in the general election.

The next question was:
In terms of electability, which of these factors would cause your concern about the nominee: a) that they are regarded as too liberal, or b) that the candidate is a trial lawyer.



I also got this poll last night. I'm an Obama supporter and did not offer a second choice. My questions were about Obama negatives and Clinton positives. Then they asked me a Richardson question, that I felt was to make me think it was a Richardson poll.

The person calling was not very polished. I asked him who ordered the poll and he said it was a PR firm called FNA that I have not found anything out about. He said that his company was "TPL" and they did surveys about lots of things--he was very chatty and after I hung up I regretted that I didn't ask him more because I think he would have told me what he knew.

They had called me probably 5-6 times based on my caller ID. The call I got last night had a 702 area code.


Post a comment

Please be patient while your comment posts - sometimes it takes a minute or two. To check your comment, please wait 60 seconds and click your browser's refresh button. Note that comments with three or more hyperlinks will be held for approval.