Pollster.com

Articles and Analysis

 

Anti-Romney Poll: So Who Did It?

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

The story of the anti-Romney poll calls into Iowa and New Hampshire that I wrote about yesterday gets stranger and stranger. Here is the lead of the story reported last night by the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman:

The GOP presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and John McCain-rocked in different ways by a highly negative "push poll" targeting Romney's Mormon faith-demanded Friday that the New Hampshire attorney general investigate who is behind the tactic. The attorney general's office said it was investigating the phone calls.

Again with feeling: This particular set of calls sounds more like an ethically questionable "message testing" survey than a classic "push poll." See my post from yesterday for more details on that issue or the clarification released last night by the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR - full disclosure: I serve on AAPOR's executive council).

An interesting twist to the story, according to Zuckman's story, is that a "New Hampshire law requires all political ads-including phone calls-to identify the candidate behind the effort, or at least the candidate who is being supported."

I went looking for more details about the questions asked on the calls, and the most detailed report comes from State Representative Ralph Watts, a Republican from Adel, Iowa. He taped a radio interview with Radio Iowa that you can listen to online. Here is the way he describes the interview (my transcription):

It started out like a lot of telephone polls do these days. They wanted to know if I was a caucus goer, and whether I was a regular voter and all that usual stuff. And then it progressed into questions about Mitt Romney, and specifically about the Mormon Church.

The first one, I guess, was innocent enough. It asked a question whether I would be more or less likely to vote for Mitt Romney because he's Mormon. Well, I guess that's a fair question, but not necessarily a pertinent question. And then it went on to talk about the philosophy of the Mormon Church. Would I be more or less likely to vote for Mitt Romney based on some of the tenants of the Mormon Church?

[snip]

This telephone interview went on for about 20 minutes. The last half of it were questions directed, they were in a more positive light and they were directed toward John McCain. They asked a question, what if I knew that McCain had some 330-some carrier landings and was a Navy pilot would that make me more or less likely to vote for him. If I knew that John McCain were a prisoner of war in Vietnam would it make me more or less likely to vote for him. Then there was a whole series of questions about John McCain that were very favorable questions about John McCain. It would have led one to believe that John McCain were behind the poll, but that would have been too obvious.

And I've done some checking myself and [with] some people, and I'm convinced that John McCain had nothing to do with it. Who actually did it, there you don't know.

What Watts describes starts out with typical political survey questions, then shifts to a long series of negative arguments about Mitt Romney followed by a long series of positive arguments about John McCain. The length of the interview and type of questions is indicative of a "message testing" survey. Ordinarily, that pattern would suggest a survey conducted by someone supportive of McCain looking for the best ways to promote their candidate and to most effectively tear down Romney. However, between the red-hot spotlight of presidential politics and the incendiary nature of questions about Romney's religion, there is nothing ordinary about this survey.

It is tempting to try to use the facts reported by Watts and other respondents to logically deduce the identity of the sponsor of the calls. But readers need to remember two things about contemporary "push poll" stories:

First, respondent memories are often imperfect. They will often exaggerate some details and omit others. Consider that in a 20-minute interview, a pollster can typically ask 60 to 80 questions. In the description above, however, Representative Watts specifically recalls just a half dozen or so questions. My point here is not to challenge his story, only to suggest that the reports we have are so far cover only the most memorable details. We may be missing some useful context.

Second, and probably most important, keep in mind that accusations of "push polling" have become a fact of life for campaign pollsters. Since virtually all campaigns in both parties now conduct "message testing" surveys, and since most reporters reflexively (and erroneously) describe any report of a negative question on a survey as evidence of "push polling," pollsters have grown accustomed to being so accused. Unlike the calls involving the Democrats I wrote about earlier in the week, these calls have all the hallmarks of a professional survey, including the length of the questionnaire and the use of a well-regarded call center. So given the intense media spotlight on Iowa and New Hampshire and the explosive nature of questions about Romney's Mormonism, my guess is that the pollster that designed this survey assumed the calls would lead to a "push poll" story. Perhaps that assumption is a part of their strategy.

And that's what makes it impossible to try to deduce from the available facts the campaign or interest that was behind the calls. As Representative Watts says, the positive questions about McCain are almost "too obvious" as a ploy intended to implicate McCain is the sponsor.

So who is behind these calls? I haven't a clue, but the story gets stranger and stranger.

Update: Jonathan Martin has the latest on this story here and here.

 

Comments

I had an interesting (at least to me) thought: what if this was an academic research project gone awry? Specifically, what if this research was intended to measure th degree of bias in the electorate based on religion and military service, and these happened to have been the two candidates who best fit those categories?

Of course, any research along these lines should have gone through an IRB, but could an IRB have reasonably anticipated the impact such surveying could have on the conspiracy-minded political landscape?

____________________

I had an interesting (at least to me) thought: what if this was an academic research project gone awry? Specifically, what if this research was intended to measure th degree of bias in the electorate based on religion and military service, and these happened to have been the two candidates who best fit those categories?

Of course, any research along these lines should have gone through an IRB, but could an IRB have reasonably anticipated the impact such surveying could have on the conspiracy-minded political landscape?

____________________

Bette:

What are the odds that so many bloggers, state representatives, etc., who report receiving these calls, would be selected at random? It seems to lend credence to the idea that this might be more a ploy to get such calls reported in the media, rather than an actual push poll or message testing. This could preempt any attempt to use the Mormonism issue against Romney in the future (along the lines of the Stone theory reported in Politico).

____________________

Andrew:

My #1 suspect is Rudy Giuliani, who once considered spreading rumors about mayor Ed Koch being homosexual before an election in NYC.

I do not discard John McCain, who recently cashed in on an an incident when his supporter called Hillary Clinton a bitch.

____________________

Mark:

Would it be unethical for the Romney campaign to place these calls, in your view?

I don't think it's a conspiracy theory to think that Romney's campaign, which is particularly worried about his Mormonism, might test anti-Mormon messages. This sort of very blunt instrument wouldn't be used by a competing candidate, but we know from the past that there are evangelical organizations that might play very rough on religious issues.

Maybe Romney is trying to anticipate what would happen if (just as one possibility) a church started dropping leaflets or push-polling or something at the end of the campaign.

I can see where a Romney-affiliated pollster might well think rough questions about yourself should be evaluated using a different ethical standard than questions about another candidate.

____________________

I think all are same. Who respects others when a question comes of Presidency? Politician and their honesty are big question nowadays. No one sticks to their own thinking and beliefs. You can judge them by their daily fluctuating speeches on same topic. :) US President Elections has great concern with the country's future. We have to be aware of each and every move of these candidates.

____________________

I think all are same. Who respects others when a question comes of Presidency? Politician and their honesty are big question nowadays. No one sticks to their own thinking and beliefs. You can judge them by their daily fluctuating speeches on same topic. :) US President Elections has great concern with the country's future. We have to be aware of each and every move of these candidates.

____________________

thebigmancat:

Think about it:

-Couldn't be McCain campaign. As previous poster said, why would they tip their hand in such an obvious way?

-Couldn't be Giuliani or Huckabee campaign. They're too smart to try and "fool" people with a bunch of McCain questions. Nobody would believe it was McCain.

-Which leaves - Romney himself! I think it was his campaign. It's a great way to generate sympathy for their candidate and cast suspicion on every other campaign - as nobody will ever know for sure who was responsible.

____________________

Paul:

The only logical answer is that the Romney campaign was responsible. Nothing else makes sense. They needed to desensitize the electorate. Romney people must have figured out that his religion poses a real concern, and they can not agree to the best way to handle it. So a under cover poll made sense, and they could blame their opponents at the same time for criticizing his religious beliefs. Devious but my guess successful unless the campaign gets caught having planted the poll in the first place. Until then, Romney can rise about this "slander" against his foundation beliefs.

____________________

Charles Wilson:

I've had mixed feelings about this one. At first I thought it was Romney trying to plant anti-Mormon "dirty tricks" to inoculate himself against the various issues that arise from his membership in that organization.

Then I though, no, Romney can't be dumb enough to use a Salt Lake City polling company to pull this sort of stunt. But after reading the non-denial denials from Western Wats, Target Consulting, and the Romney campaign, I've swung back to my original hypothesis.

All of this will come out. And when it does, Romney's campaign will say it was just some innocent "message testing." But that won't fly, but the Mittster himself cranked up some phony outrage last weekend and called the calls "unamerican."

Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive

____________________

Derek M:

Wow! I just learned about this on CNN, did some searching online and came across this web site. Are people actually suggesting a big conspiracy in which Romney puts himself down, then blames the other candidates? Give me a break! Maybe that worked back in preschool, but this is the real world. To suggest that this is a campaign tactic would be to imply SO much stupidity on the candidate's part, that I am only left doubting the intelligence of those suggesting the idea. If this idea had any merit, then why would the Romney campaign be pushing for an investigation from the attorney general?

Why all of the mindless speculating anyway? The events are being investigated, and the money / paper / electronic trail can't be hidden. We'll all know before too long who was responsible. I think that these events and the comments by some here both underline a key point: there are a lot of bigoted individuals out there, whether religious and not.

____________________

mish:

Actually, the Salt Lake Weekly newspaper solved this mystery in July '06!

Check out romneyforpresident.townhall.com for the details.

Like Mormonism, the blog isn't what it seems.

(Funny photos too!)

____________________

Derek M:

Mish, funny picture, but the site is just another example of the bigotism I was talking about. Like I said before there's TOO MUCH of it in our society already, so instead of adding to it and spreading misinformation, try educating yourself more fully about the subject first.

____________________

AmericanWoman:

Here's where your logic is flawed, Romney didn't need to garner any additional sympathy for being bashed as a Mormon.

I don't think McCain or Huckabee authorized it, I think it was some independent 527 group for McCain doing it without his knowledge.

Why don't you Sherlocks wait until the facts come in before passing judgment on a potentially innocent man?

____________________



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.

MAP - US, AL, AK, AZ, AR, CA, CO, CT, DE, FL, GA, HI, ID, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, MO, MT, NE, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, NC, ND, OH, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VT, VA, WA, WV, WI, WY, PR