Mark Blumenthal | November 17, 2007
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?
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.