Mark Blumenthal | November 14, 2007
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.
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.
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.