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Push Polls in MD/TN: FreeEats.com?

Topics: Push "Polls"

We are getting more information about those push poll calls I posted on last night, the ones first brought to light by TalkingPointsMemo. While we do not know for certain who is responsible for the calls, a trail of circumstance points to one likely suspect.

Exhibit A: One of the aspects of the calls that struck me as both odd and unusual was that all the questions required yes or no answers, including the vote question. Again, from Pollster reader ST:

It was all yes/no questions. I assumed that yes or no was all the machine could process, because everything was asked in the form of a yes no question -- even who you were going to vote for. In the candidate preference part at the beginning and end you were asked would you vote for Corker (yes/no) and then would you vote for Ford (yes/no).

Real pollsters typically ask questions with more responses than just yes or no, especially vote preference. Why the odd format? It turns out that respondents did not answer questions by pressing the buttons on their touch-tone phones (the method used by IVR pollsters), rather they answered using speech recognition software that can hear a human voice saying "yes" or "no." I emailed ST and some other commenters who reported getting the calls. So far, one has responded to confirm that the call they received asked them to speak the words "yes" or "no."

Exhibit B: Listen to this sample "political survey" available on the web site maintained by ccAdvertising, a.k.a. FreeEats.com, a.k.a. ElectionResearch.com. All of the questions are asked in a yes/no format that utilizes, as the ccAdvertising About page tells you, their "patented (patents pending) Interactive Voice Response - Speech Recognition (IVRSR)." Listen to the entire "political survey," and immediately after the question asking if "you are undecided" in the race for New York Assembly, you hear the voice of candidate Charlie Fisher -- presumably a FreeEats client -- making a pitch for his election:

Hi, this is Charlie Fisher. I'll work hard to support your interests if you elect me as Assemblyman. I hope you'll vote for me on September 10.

The ccAdvertising site has many similar examples

Exhibit C: Back to the description of ccAdvertising's services it helpfully provides on its website.

ccAdvertising utilizes its patented (patents pending) Interactive Voice Response - Speech Recognition (IVRSR) method to ensure that our political, public policy and service organization clients have their messages reach the households they have targeted, usually based on location or anticipated household demographics [emphasis added].

Further down the page they point out that ccAdvertising "also engages in the distribution of market data research obtained in our public surveys." So these surveys serve a dual purpose. They "collect data" and they deliver "messages."

The problem, from my perspective at least, is that this message delivery capacity amounts to what the Market Research Association refers to as "Selling Under the Guise of Research" (or SUGGing): "a misuse of the survey process compromises legitimate marketing and opinion research surveys conducted by professionals," that "also causes distrust among the public and affects the reliability of all public opinion research."

Exhibit D: The article "Tales of a Push Pollster," out just last week by Daniel Schulman in Mother Jones. Schulman's article - definitely worth reading in full - is a profile of ccAdvertising/FreeEats. Here are some particularly relevant excerpts:

Today, FreeEats does mostly political work. In November 2002, the company issued a press release claiming to have played a role in the "Republican force that swept America on November 5," noting that "no fewer than six winning candidates and one hot ballot referendum were influenced" by its efforts....

Business has certainly been booming for FreeEats, which has deployed its technology on behalf of conservative candidates and causes ranging from the National Rifle Association and the anti-immigration Minutemen to Tom DeLay, who paid the firm $24,101 for telemarketing work between November 2005 and February 2006. DeLay's ally Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, has hired FreeEats to push his antitax agenda, including an unsuccessful effort to prevent a tax increase in Colorado.

FreeEats has also become the go-to firm for conservative groups fighting to restrict gay marriage and abortion, both issues that are dear to the company's chairman, Donald P. Hodel-a longtime Washington insider who served in two Cabinet posts (secretary of the interior and of energy) during the Reagan administration, then went on to become president of both the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family. (Mother Jones' calls to Hodel's home in Silverthorne, Colorado, went unanswered.) In 2004, FreeEats was commissioned by the Defense of Marriage Coalition to promote a referendum banning gay marriage in Oregon. During the company's telephone surveys, Oregon residents reported being told: "In Massachusetts, where court-ordered same-sex marriage is legal, they are now preparing materials to teach the gay lifestyle to children, beginning in kindergarten." The referendum passed by a 14-point margin.

Now obviously, we do not know for certain who is behind the push poll calls reported in Maryland and Tennessee. But based on all the above, we can nominate a fairly obvious chief suspect.

UPDATE (1:40 p.m.):  The Nashville Post has a story (via DailyKos diarist Rook) on "Common Sense Ohio," that group that has apparently sponsored the calls in Tennessee.   Bigger news is that the story includes an audio tape of the call, so you can listen to it yourself.  Try playing that mp3 side by side with the demo from ccAdvertising.  The sound quality of the Tennessee call is poor, and my experience is that answering answering machine digital recording tends to distort the timber of voices.  But it sounds to me like the announcer on the push poll could be the same voice as the announcer on the ccAdvertising demos.  What do you think?

One big question about the recording:  Was it caught by answering machine or voice mail or did the person who recorded it edit out their answers?  If it was the former, then we have pretty conclusive proof of the intent of the push pollster, which is ultimately what defines push polling.  If the questions continued in the absence of verbal answers, then the "pollsters" did not care one iota about collecting data.  Their primary interest was communicating a message, even it if meant leaving unanswered "questions" on someone's voice mail.   [Tom Wood, who recorded the call for the Nashville Post explains that he did in fact answer each question.  See Update III below].

UPDATE II (2:18 p.m.):  Pollster reader ST emails to say he believes the Nashville Post recording was edited to remove the respondents answers:

[The audio tape] is exactly what I heard. Some of the push language I didn't hear because I answered no to some topics. But when I answered yes, I got the Corker talking points. Notice that it says that the poll was PAID for by Common Sense Ohio.

Based on my experience, I think that someone edited out all their answers to that recording and it is NOT from an answering machine. Also, I can tell you they answered "yes" to each question. When I was called, I only answered "yes" to the question about taxes. To the abortion, gun and immigration questions, I answered "no." I got the pro-Corker push language "only" when I answered "yes." The call just skipped to the next issue when I answered "no."

UPDATE III (5:48 p.m.):  After I contacted the Nashville Post seeking clarification of how the phone call was recorded, Tom Wood, the person who taped the call, posted the followng explanation in our comments section.  He answers my question definitively.  Yes, he says, he edited to audio to remove the sound of his answers to each question:

I recorded that audio for my colleague Ken's story, and yes, I did edit out my responses.

I had received the call on my downstairs line Saturday night, and I played along in order to hear what the questions would be. But on the question about whether I believe foreign terrorists ought to be allowed to live and work in the U.S., I responded with the first words that came to mind: "Fuck you!" The system then told me that the call would terminate unless I gave a yes or no answer. I finished the rest of the poll by giving answers as though I were a Ford supporter.

After that experience, when the call came in on my upstairs line yesterday, I grabbed my recorder and decided to answer as though I were a Corker voter. My responses prompted the system to give me the talking points on each subject, which my pro-Ford responses had not elicited.

Rather than try to explain that my responses were given for tactical reasons, I thought it would be simpler just to edit them. Sorry to have caused confusion.

Tom Wood
Nashvillepost.com

Another reader, "Fisch," left a comment on last night's post that confirms that the calls required the respondent to provide some sort of answer:

I was literally dumbstruck by the question, and while I struggled for a response, the recording went on to the next question: whether I was in favor of striking the words "under" God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. Again, I was made mute by the sheer audacity of the questions. Then the recording announced the poll would end even if I did not answer all the questions. All I could say was "Good!" I was stunned by the call, I couldn't even remember the nature of the second question, until I read your post.

Finally, fans of the movie All the President's Men may appreciate the comment left below by Pollster reader Mark Patten.  After receiving one of the calls he looked up the number for FreeEats.com and gave them a call:

I received one of the push-poll surveys in the Maryland Cardin-Steele race. I called the Herndon, VA number for FreeEats and asked the woman whom answered if this company was responsible for the robotic polling in the Maryland Cardin-Steele race. She answered yes, then became flustered, talked to someone nearby, then transfered me to another person. This was a young sounding man with a high voice and southern accent. Neither would reveal their name. I told him the number that I received the poll from (703-961-8297). He said that based on that number they were not responsible for this poll, but seemed evasive. He assured me that I would be on the no-call list, which was something I did not even bring up or know to ask for. Herndon, VA is indeed an area covered by the 703-961-xxxx number from which I received the poll.

Note: The number Patten says he "received from the call" is the number the push call left on his caller ID.  Another commenter, Gail Powers,  reports seeing the same number on her caller ID.  The number, 703-961-8269, provides a constant busy signal.  Google provides a listing for that number for an employee of a financial services firm in Virginia that appears to be long ago disconnected.  I called the firm and they had no record of any employee with that name. 

 

Comments
Lisa:

I am in northern Virginia, and I received a call about two weeks ago that used IVRSR - a litany of questions regarding my opinion on gay marraige, abortion and taxes. I clearly answered "the wrong way" on all of these, and therefore never got to the followup "push" message.

____________________

I received one of these calls on my cell phone last week (which happens to be my only phone). Answering yes or no to the questions, I found it shocking as I listened to the responses, like others have said, that slammed the Democrat for the senate in MD (Ben Cardin) with totally off-the-mark and inappropriate statements of his positions. (It?s surprising it stopped short of accusing him of wanting to eat African babies.)

My question is - is there any legal recourse against this? Can candidates or individuals on their own behalf take some kind of action against this blatantly unethical (in my view) practice? It's extraordinarily disingenuous; and with the types of responses it gave, I find it hard to believe it couldn't count as slander or defamation of character.

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Hoosier Politico:

You might want to know that the Indiana Attorney General has won recent injunctions against FreeEats making these political calls in contested Congressional races. He is using the state's phone autodialer laws.

FreeEats was doing them on behalf of the Economic Freedom Fund here.

http://www.munciefreepress.com/news/tag/Indiana%20Attorney%20General%20Steve%20Carter

____________________

Solomon Granor:

I got one of these calls in Maryland this morning. I didn't hear the "push," largely because my permanent residence is elsewhere. However, while I'm not sure whether the voice was the same, I think the abortion question on the Maryland survey was verbatim the same as on the demo you have linked.

____________________

Mark H Patten:

I received one of the push-poll surveys in the Maryland Cardin-Steele race. I called the Herndon, VA number for FreeEats and asked the woman whom answered if this company was responsible for the robotic polling in the Maryland Cardin-Steele race. She answered yes, then became flustered, talked to someone nearby, then transfered me to another person. This was a young sounding man with a high voice and southern accent. Neither would reveal their name. I told him the number that I received the poll from (703-961-8297). He said that based on that number they were not responsible for this poll, but seemed evasive. He assured me that I would be on the no-call list, which was something I did not even bring up or know to ask for. Herndon, VA is indeed an area covered by the 703-961-xxxx number from which I received the poll.

____________________

Alice Weiss:

I received a push call for a tiny state rep election in Massachusetts. The speaker purported to be the former Republican representative from our district. I say former because the Democrat running now in our district has been there for one term and I am supporting him. Apparently the Republican(a wealthy real estate agent who lost by only four votes last time) running here has enough money to hire this push polling device. The issue they used was abortion. I have to say that there are not enough women on Cape Cod who are young enough to have an abortion (much less a baby) for this to be much of an issue.
The democrat, Cleon Turner, has been a damned good rep for us so we are out talking to our neighbors hoping that our passion and advocacy
will persuade people to ignore the machines. Actually I don't think there's much of a contest in that regard.

____________________

I recorded that audio for my colleague Ken's story, and yes, I did edit out my responses.

I had received the call on my downstairs line Saturday night, and I played along in order to hear what the questions would be. But on the question about whether I believe foreign terrorists ought to be allowed to live and work in the U.S., I responded with the first words that came to mind: "**** you!" The system then told me that the call would terminate unless I gave a yes or no answer. I finished the rest of the poll by giving answers as though I were a Ford supporter.

After that experience, when the call came in on my upstairs line yesterday, I grabbed my recorder and decided to answer as though I were a Corker voter. My responses prompted the system to give me the talking points on each subject, which my pro-Ford responses had not elicited.

Rather than try to explain that my responses were given for tactical reasons, I thought it would be simpler just to edit them. Sorry to have caused confusion.

-Tom Wood
NashvillePost.com

____________________

Gail Powers:

We received automated push poll calls here in western Maryland regarding the Cardin/Steele race. The number on my (and friends') caller ID was 703 961-8297. I guess the morally superior GOP was reduced to do it after the eviseration of Michael Steele on "Meet The Press" Sunday morning.

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Clem Shugerman:

I live in the battleground state of Maryland. Yesterday I received a call from an organization that asked me by recording to take a 60 second independent survey. The first question was whether I am a registered voter. I responded "yes". The second queston was "Do you plan to vote for Michael Steel for the senate?" No mention of the party, and no mention of Steel's opponent. I was so enraged by the deception that I hanged up. I wish I had played along so I would have more to report on the Republican deception.

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J Gibson:

Don't know if this adds anything, but Channel 2 Baltimore has a piece up on the Maryland robo-calls:

http://www.abc2news.com/news/06-10-30-negative-polling.html

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pol junkie:

Not surprising that the GOP are using their good ole reliable technique. The most famous recent case of push-polling done by GW on John McCain in the South Carolina 2000 primary.

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2004/03/21/the_anatomy_of_a_smear_campaign/

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ePM:

More info on the CommonSense groups here:
http://www.dailykos.com/story/2006/10/31/152758/49

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