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New "Mormongate" Theories: A Reality Check

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

I was going to try to finish up my Disclosure Project post again today, but alas, there are more timely reports on the mysterious anti-Romney poll worth commenting on, a controversy some are now dubbing "Mormongate."

First, a summary of developments since I wrote about this story last week. A handful of conservative bloggers -- particularly Soren Dayton and Liz Mair -- have been theorizing that Romney supporters or the Romney campaign itself might be responsible for the calls. That speculation culminated in a widely cited article by the National Review's Mark Hemmingway, which argued that "evidence points" in the "general direction" of the Romney campaign as the culprit. Hemmingway's article drew a forceful response from both the Romney campaign and their pollster, Alex Gage of TargetPoint Consulting:

To set the record straight: TargetPoint Consulting has absolutely nothing to do with the calls in question. To be even clearer: TargetPoint Consulting has NEVER and will NEVER conduct a push-poll. TargetPoint is in the business of promoting Governor Romney, not manufacturing fantasy plots that involve smearing him.

Gage's denial is clear and unequivocal. However it is worth noting that nearly everyone involved, including Western Wats (the survey call center that allegedly made the calls in question) is eager to deny they conducted a "push poll." As I wrote last week, based on the reports of respondents, these calls sound more like a "message testing" poll than the classic "push poll" dirty trick (which is not a poll at all but calls that impersonate a real survey in an effort to spread a nasty message -- see my prior post). The questions worth asking, at this point, are who sponsored the calls and what did they say, exactly, about Romney's Mormonism?

Today, Dayton and Mair are asking why so many of the respondents that have come forward to report receiving the calls are either Romney supporters or paid Romney staff. The obvious explanation is that the Romney campaign directed supporters that were called to reporters. And in the latest development, TPM's Greg Sargent now reports that the Romney campaign confirms it did just that -- "referred reporters to two recipients of the calls without disclosing that the two were also on the Romney campaign payroll."

The two conservative bloggers are alleging that these ties to the Romney campaign imply something more sinister: Either a poll specifically targeted at Romney supporters in order to create a story, or perhaps an effort to get Romney staffers and supporters to lie to reporters about a non-existent survey.

For what it's worth, both allegations seem like a quite a stretch, but I want to answer one specific question raised by Liz Mair from my own perspective as a campaign pollster.

She wonders whether "including people on Romney's payroll or those publicly affiliated with the campaign in a call sample would be bad, and non-standard, practice." Not really. I cannot remember conducting any poll that attempted to exclude campaign staffers or those "publicly affiliated" with any campaign from the sample itself, as the registered voter lists typically lack any such information. Sometimes, when sampling from a list maintained by a political party, sample vendors offer the option of excluding those identified on the list as party activists or precinct captains, but that practice is far from standard.

Mair also goes on to cite a "top Republican pollster" who answers her question:

[N]ormally, people working for or associated with campaigns, and members of the media, are excluded from calling lists in the first place-- presumably because of bias that might be evident, which could raise questions about the accuracy of the result.

There may be some confusion here about what this particular pollster meant by "list." Some pollsters -- but by no means all -- begin their interview with what some describe as a "security screen." It asks if the respondent works for a political party, a campaign, a news organization, etc., with the aim of screening out such respondents from the final sample. I have always been skeptical that such screens accomplish what they aim to. My old firm typically used such screens only when a client specifically requested it. Pollsters may disagree about the merits of this procedure, but describing it as a universal or standard practice among campaign pollsters is just not accurate.

So should we be suspicious that most if not all of the respondents that have come forward are Romney supporters? I'm not sure we should. First, Romney supporters have the strongest motivation to come forward. They are likely more angry and upset and are more likely to want to report the calls to reporters or the Romney campaign. Second, as argued by Dayton and Mair, the Romney campaign has incentive to try to direct angry supporters to reporters in hope of generating a sympathetic story.

Third, we ought to think about the implications of the size of the sampled universe and the cooperation rate that pollsters are currently receiving from Iowa voters. Consider that the all time high Republican caucus turnout was little over one hundred thousand. Past caucus goers on the lists are the most active and committed Republicans in Iowa. Consider also that nearly every campaign and many different pollsters have been calling into Iowa in recent weeks, and that is on top of automated recorded calls placed by each campaign. Given that the best of surveys conducted under the best of conditions get response rates in the 20 to 30 percent range, and assuming that native campaign staffers and activists are probably the most likely to cooperate, the odds of getting a disproportionate number in the sample seems likely. The point here is simply that the odds of including a half dozen or so active Romney supporters (and even a paid staffer or two) in a sample of 600 or so Iowa Republicans do not seem terribly long to me.

So bloggers will speculate and dig further, as we always do, but I am not convinced from the facts before us allow the conclusion that pollster behind this survey intended to contact only Romney supporters.

Update: I had not seen it, but NRO's Mark Hemingway responded to criticism of his initial article today. His post includes a series of questions that TargetPoint refuses to answer beyond their blanket denial: "we had nothing to do with these calls." (via Sullivan).

 

Comments
Charles Wilson:

The plot continues to thicken.

The calls get made by a Utah company with close Romney ties. Two of the recipients are paid Romney staffers, who then go to the media without disclosing that they're on the payroll. Romney denounces the calls as "unamerican."

When the connections are revealed, the polling firm (Western Wats), a closely aligned consultant (Target Point), and the Romney campaign issue a series of non-denial denials, while aplying the "conspiracy theorist" label to those who raise questions.

Mark Blumenthal now steps forward in an informal role as excuse-maker for the Romney campaign. In doing so, he ignores the simplest and most likely explanation, which is that Romney's campaign commissioned these calls, and then manufactured the subsequent "outrage," to generate a sympathetic backlash against anyone who would raise the issue of Romney's religion in the campaign.

This dog doesn't hunt. Like the other Republican candidates and George W. before them, Romney has been wearing his "faith" on his sleeve. His Mormonism is not only an issue, but it's an appropriate one, especially now that Romney himself has brought it to the forefront through this stunt and the lying that has followed.

____________________

What's worse is when your benchmark poll sample includes the opposition candidate. Doh!

Still, let's calculate the odds that two Iowa Romney staffers would have been selected in a sample of 600:

In 2000, the Iowa Republican Party reported 86,000 people participated in the caucus (I'm using 2000 as the baseline since the 2004 caucus was uncontested).

I count 78 persons (+/- my counting errors) with an Iowa address on Romney's October FEC report. A couple people look like they may have moved to Iowa, so I do not know how many of these people are actually Iowa registered voters.

So, if I selected one registered Republican who participated in the 2000 Republican caucus, the probability that person would be a paid Romney staffer is p = 78/86,000 = 0.0009.

If I did this 600 times (assuming replacement), I would expect on average to have n*p or a little over .54 Romney paid staffers in the sample.

How likely is it that two paid Romney staffers would appear in the sample? The easiest way to calculate this is to apply the normal approximation to the binomial distribution. The variance is = np(1-p) or 600*.0001*.9999 or .54. Take the square root to get the standard deviation of .97. Having two paid Romney staffers then would be roughly 1.4 standard deviations away from the expected .54, which has a probability of .08 (i.e., 8%). (There are a number of problems with this approach, most obviously, the lower bound of zero means the normal approximation is pretty poor in this case.)

There could be an error that crept in my calculations, but I do not think Mark is all that far off to speculate that two paid Romney staffers could reasonably have received the phone call.

This is in no way a comment on how the Romney campaign chose to alert the public about the situation, only a speculation on the likelihood of two paid staffers being in the sample, which is something people may easily jump to the wrong conclusion about since we know people have difficulty calculating probabilities (Las Vegas is a monument to this fact).

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Half Canadian:

Western Watts, while a Utah company, is owned by another corporation outside of Utah. The 'close ties' with Watts no longer work there. When I interviewed with the company, they told me they had offices in various states, as well as the Philippines (and, at one time, Canada).

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mikeVA:
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Sara:

I thought the word was that Western Wats had closest ties to Rudy, not Mitt Romney. And since when does getting polled and being a donor constitute "close ties" to the polling company. That's ludicrous.

I'm a 62 year old retiree living on a very small fixed income. I have an automatic payment of $25 set up to be sent to the candidate I am supporting on a monthly basis. That is the only way I can manage to stay within my budget and still contribute. I was polled a couple of weeks ago and I'm not even in an early primary state. I have no idea who was conducting the poll and I certainly don't have ties to the polling company, yet questions were asked about my candidate of choice.

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Charles Wilson:

Oh what a tangled web Mitt has weaved, when first he set out to deceive. In fact, Romney is close friends with the founder of Western Wats, and Western Wats is close to Target Point.

Target Point denied having anything to do with "the calls in question," and denied "push polling." However, as Target Point refused to speak with reporters on the record, those denials must be considered mere semantic exercises.

Even though the calls that have been reported have been tracked to Western Wats, it refuses to confirm -- or deny -- making them. Nor will it discuss which campaign or consultant paid for the calls that it won't confirm or deny. Similarly, it denies "push polling" without ever defining the term.

Romney's campaign calls the calls "unamerican," but its staffers made a point of contacting the news media to discuss them, without ever disclosing that they were paid employees of Romney's organization. And they've changed the stories several times about exactly when they got the calls.

Western Wats did make one interesting comment. They said they don't advise on, or determine, who gets called in any particular survey. That's up to the client who orders the survey. We have two Romney employees who were called, and one state legislator who's a Romney supporter. And that's what we currently know about.

Says one Republican blogger:

"In speaking to a top Republican pollster this morning, I have been told that normally, people working for or associated with campaigns, and members of the media, are excluded from calling lists in the first place-- presumably because of bias that might be evident, which could raise questions about the accuracy of the result."

In other words, whoever paid for those surveys made sure that Romney staffers and supporters got called. Someone wanted the non-push push poll, which Romney called "unamerican," to come to the attention of Romney supporters, who then dutifully informed the media that some terrible group was making anti-Mormon phone calls.

Not only that, but in addition to labeling the calls "unamerican," Romney prominently blamed them on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. Given that McCain's 95-year-old mother had made anti-Mormon comments -- for which McCain apologized on the spot -- Romney's prominent linkage of the "unamerican" calls to McCain was a clear attempt to cement the idea that McCain was attacking Romney for being a Mormon.

Mitt Romney and his supporters are being too cute by half. If they think this is going to go away, they're wrong. It's all going to come out in the wash. This sort of thing might be standard operating procedure behind the Zion Curtain, but once you get out of Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and Nevada, you don't get dealt so many wild cards.

Better tell the truth, Mitt. It's going to be told anyway.

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Sara:

I just remembered this.

In 1988, I was on the staff of the G.H.W. Bush campaign through the Maryland Rep. party and worked every day at campaign headquarters. At some point during the campaign we were polled and my husband answered the phone and agreed to participate.

The one question he could remember afterwards was:

Are you ready for a change?

He said, "of course, Reagan can't run again." So they put him down as a yes, ready for change.

A short time later, I saw a big news blurb about how a large percentage of voters were ready for a change and Dukakis was up by 18 or 19%, according to the latest poll.

Just a way polling can be very skewed and not reflect at all what the voter plans to do. It also illustrates that staffer's homes do get polled.

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Charles Wilson:

And Sara, do outraged staffers call the newspapers and pose as "leaning" for a candidate who in fact signs their paycheck?

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chuck the truck:

Atheist lesbians because of their DNA are emotoinal and tend to lie . These feelings are an attempt at logic . The atheist realize or believe that there is no penalty for a lie . And where is the ACLU ? If we changed a few of the words to Black , Jew , or you pick one of them people , would we then see the point of these attacks ?

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Sara:

I might if it was my candidate being smeared. Staffers, of course, would be more likely to understand the press and public relations than the average man on the street. I would probably first take it to the campaign and then be agreeable to talk to the press, if asked.

I don't see the nefariousness that you do, but then I also don't see a problem with Mormons as my experience is that they are some of the most honest people of the highest integrity I know and I think Mitt Romney is no exception.

Anyway, Huckabee is an ordained Baptist minister, is anyone polling on whether we want an ordained minister in the White House? No I didn't think so. The religion of a candidate isn't that big a deal to me, but how do we know if there is just as large a segment who would find a Baptist minister more of a threat than a Mormon? We don't know because noone ever asks that. I mean isn't Fred Phelps a Baptist minister?

Look at the man, his issues, his policy proposals, his character, his education, his preparation, even his personality, not what church he attends on Sunday or Friday night or whenever. When Romney prays, he is praying to the very same God those Evangelicals are praying to, so what's the dif?

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Charles Wilson:

Sara, it turns out that this goes beyond the staffers' failure to disclose the relationship. Romney's campaign referred the news media to these people, also without disclosing that they were on the payroll.

And you think that Romney has "the highest integrity?" No wonder you were a campaign worker. What do you do now, sell mortgages?

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Charles Wilson:

Here is the question of the hour, to be asked of Mitt Romney himself, and of his hired gun, Target Point Consulting:

"Did the Romney campaign or Target Point pay for phone calls -- survey, push, or otherwise -- from Nov. 15-17 in IA, NH, or SC that asked questions about Mormonism?"

Let's see what the Mittster has to say. And someone should remind him that his answers are going to be thoroughly checked out.

____________________

Sara:

Mr. Wilson, you are coming way to close to bigotry for my taste, so I will not debate you any longer. Your between the lines innuendo is offensive. And yes, I think Mitt Romney is a fine man, a fine husband, a fine father, and I like him very much as a candidate.

I, however, will support any of the Rep. candidates who manage to win the nomination, except Ron Paul, some with more verve than others. I would have to hold my nose when pulling the lever for McCain, Huckabee or Tancredo, but I would vote for them if push came to shove.

Oh and on the staffer, somehow it seems you know they were paid and that supposedly they didn't reveal it. Then how do you know about them? And what difference does it make. They got the call, they described the call as I'm sure others have as well. And I wouldn't exactly call TargetPoint's denial a non-denial denial, it was very strongly worded and left nothing to doubt about their position.

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Raymond:

1) Mitt MUST neutralize the religion issue
2) Mitt CANNOT address Mormonism candidly and still remain viable
3) Mitt has spent a fortune and yet Huckabee is catching him in the polls
4) Mitt plays the Persecution Card - a standard Mormon practice - to resolve the dilemma
5) Mitt gets caught and offers up too-cute-by-half denials

____________________

Ray:

One thing is clear about these comments, Charles Wilson is really gunning for a scandal. :) If only there were more questionable evidence that he could claim was incontrovertible proof of his personal political biases.

--Ray

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Charles Wilson:

It doesn't matter what my biases are. Facts and logic are all that count, and those are against Romney. Sara, I have made no anti-Mormon statements in this thread. It was Romney himself who did that.

You say there's no problem with Romney's paid staffers not disclosing their status to the media? I'd say maybe you've been in that game a bit too long, then. It's called "conflict of interest" and "lying by omission" when a paid campaign staffer describes herself as merely "leaning" toward the candidate who is in fact signing her paycheck.

Maybe we need to have term limits on the people who engage in political campaigning.

____________________

Charles Wilson:

This from the Salt Lake Tribune:

"When asked if she was a Romney supporter, Roth said she was leaning toward backing him, but not sure. Roth didn't disclose, nor did the campaign, that she has received $3,000 since April from the Romney camp as a grass-roots field organizer."

Sara, the Romney employee said she was "not sure" who she supported, when in fact she was on Romney's payroll. Is lying to the media part of your job description, or is that just something they do in Utah?

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Joe S.:

There's an eight percent chance that Romney isn't duplicitous. And a ninety-two percent chance that he is.

Which I find rather reassuring. I mean, who really wants two frickin' Guantanamos?

____________________

Max Thrax:

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that the mathematical analysis by Michael McDonald went right over Chuck the Truck's head. Though he should be commended for bring up the atheist lesbian DNA angle.

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Chris:

Charles Wilson states "I have made no anti-Mormon statements", yet he accusses Romney of wearing his faith on his sleeve, of lying, of being responsible for a supporter not disclosing her connection to the Romney campaign, and "Is lying to the media just part of your job description, or is that just something they do in Utah?". Charles is just another anti-Mormon bigot who sees Mormons being the root cause of anything he does not like. He sounds like someone else in history who tried to blame the Jews for every problem.

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Charles Wilson:

Actually, Chris, I wrote that "I have made no anti-Mormon statements in this thread."

I think that Romney's Mormonism is fair game for discussion. He has presented himself as a "faith-based" candidate. Then, the preponderance of evidence shows he went further by commissioning anti-Mormon phone calls, which he and his campaign tried to pin on McCain.

It really doesn't matter if I am anti-Mormon. What matters is that your candidate Mitt Romney has been caught playing a cheap little trick. If he thought it would keep people from discussing the specifics of Mormonism, he's wrong. There is every reason to do that, especially now.

There are a lot of Mormon-related questions to ask, starting with wanting to know what percentage of his campaign money (other than his own self-bankrolling) comes from Mormon sources.

Also, I think it's fair to point out that Romney's church is noted for having abandoned its core "beliefs" on a number of issues, including polygamy and blacks in its priesthood, for political reasons. Romney did the same thing, when he proclaimed gay-friendly, pro-choice sentiments to get himself elected governor of Massachusetts, and then did U-turns on both issues when it came time to seek the Republican nomination.

The similiarity between that turn-around and specifically the Mormon reversal on polygamy, which occurred between 1889 (a pro-polygamy "revelation" from God) and 1890 (an anti-polygamy "revelation" from God) are too striking to ignore, especially coming from a "faith-based" candidate.

You don't get to have it both ways. Mitt Romney opened the door, so now he can talk to his dinner guests.

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Nick Pangaakis:


To Mike McDonald:

RE: p = 78/86,000 = 0.0009

86,000 was the GOP turnout in 2000. I believe this is your estimate of the population of likely caucus goers now; i.e., passed the likely to vote screen.

None of the screens used in Iowa polling are that tight. The poll's sample could have easily been from a population twice as large. p could be equal to 0.00045. What are the odds of getting two paid staffers given a screen not as tight but still very good compared to many polls? (Also, to be more precise, these are staffers willing to talk to Salt Lake City Tribune reporters but we can't estimate that.)

Also, a sample of 600 is the maximum for live interviewer phone polls reported by pollster.com.

You did nice work but yours is a "best case" calculation. There are alternative solutions.

As background, Iowa election authorities reported there were 595,464 registered Republicans as of Nov. 7, 2006. Certainly more than that now.

Nick Panagakis
http://www.marketsharescorp.com/

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markmanship:

I feel bored with the antics of Charles Wilson's anti-Mormon biases. He's using Mitt Romney to push-through his agenda.

Anyway Charles, your arguments don't sell, no one is buying them.

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Charles Wilson:

To follow up Nick Pangaakis's question, what are the odds that they'd reach two Romney staffers, that the staffers would be willing to talk to the Salt Lake Tribune, and that one of the staffers who directly lie to the newspaper?

Beyond that, folks might be interested in doing Google searches on Robert Litchfield and Alan B. Fabian.

Litchfield is one of Romney's campaign co-chairs in Utah who runs private boarding schools that are accused of starving, beating, and sexually abusing the teenagers who attend them. Fabian is one Romney's national fundraising chairs, and he's been indicted on 23 counts of business fraud.

Not only do the news media have an embargo on stories about Romney's specific religious beliefs, but they seem to have collectively decided not to report ANY negative facts about Romney or any of his associates.

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Mr. Law:

Charles Wilson is an extreme anti-Mormon bigot, and he posts his hatemongering tripe at just about every blog linked by either drudge, mittreport, or evangelicalsformitt. He is clearly either unemployed or retired, hates Latter-day Saints, and/or is employed by Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain, Fred Thompson, or Mike Huckabee. His focus is on relentlessly, viciously attacking Mitt Romney and Mormons, so it is difficult to determine who he really supports.

Charles:

GET A LIFE!

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J:

This always turns into the same old thing!

If you oppose Mitt Romney, you are a bigot. An anti-Mormon bigot.

Notice that all the Romney bots on this post are Mormon. Hillarious.

I am so sick and tired of the religion issue. Why does that even have to come up?

Willard Romney is a phony, a liar and a man who will say anything to get elected. Now go ahead and call me a bigot.
I don't give a hoot.

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Charles Wilson:

Charles Wilson is an extreme anti-Mormon bigot, and he posts his hatemongering tripe at just about every blog linked by either drudge, mittreport, or evangelicalsformitt.

I've seen the Drudge Report but have never posted anything there. I'd never heard of "mittreport" or "evanglicalsformitt" until reading your post. It would seem that Romney's Mormon supporters have defined any criticism of their candidate as anti-Mormon bigotry.

Unless, of course, it is the Romney campaign behind anti-Mormon phone calls. Then they trot out paid campaign staff to tell lies about McCain and about themselves, and portray the Latter-Day Mitt as a persecuted saint. Cute.

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