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February 21, 2006

RoboScam: Not Your Father's Push Poll

The plot thickens.  The automated calls we noted Friday received in the New York Congressional District of Republican Congressman John Sweeney (as reported by the Glen Falls, NY Post Star and the Albany Times Union) do not appear to be an isolated incident.   Very similar calls have been received in Iowa and at least three other congressional districts held by Democrats that match the pattern of a classic "push poll" dirty trick.  Why such calls were also made about a Republican remain unclear, but the answer may be a new high tech development in the inglorious history of political dirty tricks.  Details will follow, but for now, let's call it "robo-scam."

First, the latest details:  Last Thursday, Iowa attorney, blogger and former Iowa Democratic Party Chair Gordon R. Fischer reported receiving a call very similar to those received in New York (hat tip to alert MP reader Drew Miller).  There were jut two questions asked by an automated recorded voice.  He took notes of the call and posted an approximate transcript online (Fischer tells me by email that his transcript is "close to verbatim, but they did talk fast."  He estimates it as "75% accurate"):

This is a two part survey.

Al Gore strongly criticized President Bush for wiretapping American citizens without a warrant. Congressman Leonard Boswell supports President Bush's wiretapping program.

If you agree with President Bush's wiretapping program, press 1.

If you disagree with President Bush's wiretapping, press 2.

If you are unsure, press 3."

[I pressed 3. I'm really not sure].

The voice continued:

"Here is the second -- and last -- question. Do you support the re election of Congressman Leonard Boswell?

If you support Congressman Boswell's re election, press 1.

If you do not support Congressman Boswell's re election, press 2."

[I pressed 1.]

Thank you for your time." CLICK.

On Friday, Fischer posted an update reporting that he had been "swamped by folks who received the exact same call."   

MP was also contacted by a Democratic pollster who requested anonymity but reported that similar calls have been received in the districts of at least four Democratic members of Congress in addition to Boswell.  All of the calls involved automated surveys that asked only two "questions:" One asked about President Bush's NSA wiretapping program after mentioning that the member of Congress supported it.  The second asked whether the respondent would support the member's re-election. 

Memories were hazy on the stated identity of the pollster.  Here is Fischer's report, again via email:

Unfortunately, [I could remember] nothing -- it was very fast.  And the "identifier" was only at the beginning of the call.  I think it was something generic like, American Opinion, or Acme Polls, or something.

MP also heard independently about these calls from two pollsters in Iowa who both recieved similar calls.  One was J. Ann Selzer whose company regularly conducts the "Iowa Poll" for the Des Moines Register.  She received an automated poll call, but hung up before listening to the questions.  However, she definitely remembers hearing that the survey would involve just two questions and it was being conducted by "USA Polling."  She explains via email:

I definitely heard USA Polling and of course because I'm in the industry and I know Jay [Leve of SurveyUSA], I made particular note of the name, wondering if this was a spinoff of his enterprise.  Because I am associated with a prominent local poll (The Des Moines Register's Iowa Poll), I do not respond to polls of a political nature in order to maintain my independent status.

These reports are consistent with those from the calls into John Sweeney's district in New York.  The Albany Times Union reported one recipient who "recalled hearing something about 'USA,' and thought perhaps USA Today was conducting the poll."  Another recipient "thought she heard 'USA' mentioned on the call as well."

The second Iowa pollster is now retired and emailed MP to say he too had received an automated survey call that asked two questions, one about Bush's wiretapping program and a second about whether he would vote for Boswell.  He did not remember any reference to Boswell's support for the wiretapping program (and so did not consider the call a "push poll").  He also remembered the pollster being identified at the beginning of the call as "SurveyUSA."  [Update:  With his permission, I can report that the retired pollster referenced above was Glenn H. Roberts, former and long-time head of the Iowa Poll at the Des Moines Register].

I contacted Jay Leve of SurveyUSA who confirms that his company has not fielded any surveys in Iowa during 2006 about either Congressman Boswell or the NSA wiretapping program.  They did conduct interviews in Iowa from February 10 to 12 as part of their 50-state tracking program, but again, that survey asked no questions about either wiretapping or Boswell.  However, as Leve points out, the apparent confusion of the retired pollster,

just confirms anew how invidious this is for my organization, (that somebody IN the business could confuse it with SurveyUSA), and then more generally, it speaks to the destructive power of the phone calls themselves (as they should concern all public opinion pollsters, who need trust and cooperation from respondents.)

So here are the facts now in the public domain:  Automated "poll" calls were made into at two congressional districts, one represented by a Democrat, one by a Republican.  In each case, the poll involved just two questions, one about Bush's wiretapping program and one about support for the incumbent member of Congress.  Most of those called (including a lawyer taking notes) remember hearing that the member of Congress "supports President Bush's wiretapping program."   MP has heard from a Democratic pollster who prefers to remain anonymous that very similar calls have been received in recent weeks in at least four more districts represented by Democrats. 

As I will explain in an update, the calls into the Democratic districts fit the classical pattern of the dirty trick "push poll," albeit delivered by an automated recording.  The puzzling part involves the calls made into the district of Republican John Sweeney of NY, for reasons that require more explanation, do not fit the usual "push poll" modus operandi.  MP has a theory on that one, which I will explain in an update later today.

UPDATE:  So what is going on here?  To try to connect the dots, a little explanation is in order. 

Let's start with the definition of a "push poll." Many organizations have posted definitions (AAPOR, NCPP, CMOR, CBS News, Campaigns and Elections, Wikipedia), but the important thing to remember is that a "push poll" is not a poll at all. It's a fraud, an attempt to disseminate information under the guise of a legitimate survey. The proof is in the intent of the person doing it.

To understand what I mean, imagine for a moment that you are an ethically challenged political operative ready to play the hardest of hardball. Perhaps you want to spread an untruth about an opponent or "rumor" so salacious or farfetched that you dare not spread it yourself (such as the classic lie about John McCain's supposed "illegitimate black child"). Or perhaps your opponent has taken a "moderate" position consistent with that of your boss, but likely to inflame the opponent's base (such as Republican voting to raise taxes or a Democrat supporting "Bush's wiretapping program").

You want to spread the rumor or exploit the issue without leaving fingerprints. So you hire a telemarketer to make phone calls that pretend to be a political poll. You "ask" only a question or two aimed at spreading the rumor (example: "would you be more or less likely to support John McCain if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate child who was black?"). You want to make as many calls as quickly as possible, so you do not bother with the time consuming tasks performed by most real pollsters, such as asking a lot of questions or asking to speak to a specific or random individual within the household.

Again, the proof is in the intent: If the sponsor intends to communicate a message to as many voters as possible rather than measure opinions or test messages among a sample of voters, it qualifies as a "push poll."

We can usually identify a true push poll by a few characteristics that serve as evidence of that intent. "Push pollsters" (and MP hates that term) aim to reach as many voters as possible, so they typically make tens or even hundreds of thousands of calls. Real surveys usually attempt to interview only a few hundred or perhaps a few thousand respondents (though not always). Push polls typically ask just a question or two, while real surveys are almost always much longer and typically conclude with demographic questions about the respondent (such as age, race, education, income). The information presented in a true push poll is usually false or highly distorted, but not always. A call made for the purposes of disseminating information under the guise of survey is still a fraud - and thus still a "push poll" - even if the facts of the "questions" are technically true or defensible.

So let's start with the calls to Iowa and the other districts represented by Democrats. Please keep in mind that this is a blog and the judgments that follow reflect MPs opinion. Obviously, we cannot know for certain the motives of those who placed the calls, but they have all the hallmarks of a classic "push poll" dirty trick.

One big clue comes from the length. The calls asked just two questions and included no demographic items. Another is the nature of the first question. It is hard to imagine a real pollster phrasing a question like the Gordon Fischer describes whether testing current opinions or reactions to some potential message. Even if the confluence of Gore's opposition plus the Congressman's support added up so some sort of message worth testing, a real pollster would first ask about support for the wiretapping program absent the "message" in order to gauge its effect.

Probably the most important clue comes from the claim that the Democrats in question "support" the president on wiretapping. In at least one case reported to MP, the Democrat has not yet made a public statement on the Bush wiretaps. In the case of Leonard Boswell, Radio Iowa reported just last Friday that he criticized the wiretapping program during the taping of a Public Television program (I am told that it typically tapes on Thursday). While it may exist, I cannot find any other statement online by Boswell on this subject. So the possibility exists that he spoke out after most of the "USA Polling" calls were made into his district.

Why does that matter?  At very least, the calls misrepresent Boswell's current position.  However, consider these calls in the context of Karl Rove's recent speech to the Republican National Committee in which he signaled his intent to make disagreements over the NSA surveillance program a centerpiece of the Republican campaign:

Let me be as clear as I can: President Bush believes if al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why. Some important Democrats clearly disagree. This is an issue worthy of a public debate.

So again my speculation: Someone out there would like to see Rove's hoped for "debate" occur in as many Congressional races as possible. So they are making thousands of calls into Districts held by moderate Democrats spreading the rumor that those officeholders support Bush on wiretapping. They know that Democratic partisans (like this one) will be outraged and put pressure on their representatives to harshly criticize Bush on wiretapping. If the members respond to the pressure, the dirty tricksters get the debate they hoped for. If not, the Democrats are forced to put out fires ignited by the push poll in their base.

OK, you say, that may explain the calls to districts held by Democrats, but what about the calls into the district of Republican John Sweeney stating that Sweeney "supports" the president on wiretapping? What possible motive could those calls have? MP's admittedly speculative theory requires some explanation of another form of fraudulent survey: Those that involve political canvassing under the guise of a survey.

"Canvassing" is a political activity once performed mostly by volunteers. They would knock on doors or call voters on the phone, identify their affiliation with a candidate and then ask whethrer the voters planned to support their candidate. Supporters might get a "get-out-the -vote" (GOTV) reminder call on Election Day. Undecided voters might receive a follow-up mailings to win them over.

One problem with the honest approach to canvassing is that many voters choose to hide their true intentions from partisan volunteers. Over the years, as political campaigns came to rely more on paid telemarketing firms to conduct canvassing, the purveyors discovered that they would get fewer "undecided" responses by pretending to conduct a poll. Although the paid canvassers never make an explicit promise to keep the responses confidential, their failure to reveal their true identity combined with the use of the terms "survey" or "poll" convey the same implicit message. That is why it works.

Survey researchers have a name for this particular fraud when used to sell products: "sugging," an acronym for "selling under the guise" of research. Sugging not only violates the codes of organizations like AAPOR and CASRO, it is also now prohibited by federal law.

The telemarketing laws that outlaw "sugging" do not apply to explicitly political activity such as push polls or canvassing, in part because of the constitutional protections of political speech. But legal or not, canvassing under the guise of a survey is an ethical breach that exploits the credibility of legitimate polls that protect respondent confidentiality. Pollsters may disagree among themselves about methodology, but nearly all agree that protecting respondent confidentiality is sacrosanct. Canvassing under the guise of a survey makes a mockery of that principle.

Unfortunately, the latest technical innovations in automated polling make canvassing under the guise of polling even cheaper and easier than in the past. Now campaigns can call every voter in a district or state in a matter of days. And in a climate where the use of "high tech micro-targeting" based on commercial data appended to voter files is all the rage, such activity may be proliferating.

MP's theory is that some or perhaps all of the "USA Polling" calls discussed in this post may be part of a such a "data harvesting" scheme. Again, this is pure speculation, but more specifically:

  • In some districts, such as the John Sweeney's in New York, the calls are intended only to identify individual voters who approve of his presumed support for the wiretapping program.
  • In other districts the sponsors get a two-fer: They can identify voters who approve of the Bush wiretapping plan while also using the classic "push poll" tactic to sow discord in the Democratic base.

Either way, these calls look like a sleazy, unethical program of unusual scope. Calling it a mere "push poll" seems inadequate. So henceforth, let's give it a name more fitting of its high tech origins:


PS: The scammers rely largely on stealth.  They do their business in such a subtle way that is is almost subliminal.  Those who do suspect foul play usually have nowhere to go with their concerns.  If those of us who object want to do something about it, we need to use the power of the Internet to pool what we know. So I hope that bloggers who read this message will link to it and urge anyone who has received similar calls to email me with the details. Big points (and possibly a reward) to anyone who can capture an audio recording of one of these calls or any details via caller ID.

[Misspellings of Fischer corrected]

UPDATE (2/23):  Posted here.

Related Entries - Push "Polls" , Roboscam

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on February 21, 2006 at 01:50 PM in Push "Polls" , Roboscam | Permalink


Clearly, Karl Rove is behind this.

Pardon me while I adjust my tin foil hat.

Posted by: Bush Did It. | Feb 22, 2006 8:57:59 AM

I believe the phone call I got used the term "illegal wiretapping". I would think the Sweeney campaign would use that term.

Also, there was a pause between and after "John Sweeney" as if it had been edited in. I don't know if that was intentional, but it made it seem that this was a generic poll.

I was left with the impression that it was done by an organization such as MoveOn.

Posted by: SaratogaSprings | Feb 22, 2006 12:44:47 PM

Mark, don't you think this is just a little paranoid? For several reasons.

First, similar operations were discovered in boh Democratic and Republican districts. You conclude that the ones in the Democratic district was unethical 'push polling' and that the one in the GOP district was equally unethical 'canvassing'. Both presumbably instigated by the GOP. How's that again?

Second, look at the date on your blog entry. February 21st, 2006. The election is more than 6 months from now, and the vast majority of voters can't remember what they saw on TV last night much less a political ad or a push poll. Whatever it is it is almost certainly a waste of money foremost.

I might point out that Karl Rove run organizations typically don't waste too much money. Moveon.com - did. As did a number of other Democratic 527's. That doesn't prove anything one way or the other.

The only possible reason I can think for Rove to do something like this is to make a bunch of Democrats scurry about and wet themselves. What used to be called a mindf**k.

It is well known that only the GOP uses push-polls in such manner of course. The classic case is the 1994 Florida election where GOP Governor Lawton Chiles beat Democratic challenger Jeb Bush because of the use of a last-minute 'push-poll'. But remember - he didn't start it in February...... It's a big yawn.

Polls screw up elections of course. Remember 2000? How about 'President Kerry' in for a few hours in 2004? It might just be an idea to improve the exit polling a tad rather than worry too much about trivia like this?

Posted by: Don Stadler | Feb 22, 2006 1:38:53 PM

The comments so far totally miss the point. MP totally nailed it.

Yes, on a superficial level, the calls don’t make any sense. Why call folks and tell them, say, Congressman Leonard Boswell (D-IA) supports NSA wiretapping, when he hasn’t even taken a public position on it yet? And why call hardcore Democrats? Why call them months ahead of the election? Isn’t that a huge waste of money and time?

It only makes sense only from a Rovian, evil genius perspective. If you think deeply, two goals could be accomplished by this push poll. I call them (1) suppression, and (2) smoke out.

First, suppression. It is no secret President Bush is deeply unpopular among Dems. The latest Iowa poll of which I am aware (surveyusa.com) shows an anemic 10 percent of Iowa Dems approve of the job President Bush is doing, while a whopping 85 percent disapprove. So attempting to tie Congressman Boswell to President Bush, especially on a program as controversial as NSA spying, certainly does the Congressman no favors with his Democratic base. Although Congressman Boswell does not support the program, at least as currently constituted, if Dems believe he does, that will almost certainly deflate enthusiasm for his candidacy. Less folks volunteering, less folks contributing, and so on. In short, suppressing Dem money and volunteers.

Second, the smoke out. This, I deduce, is the real purpose of the push poll. Just a few days after the push poll, Congressman Boswell took a position against the NSA wiretapping program. He hadn’t taken a position previously. So, now, after the push poll, Congressman Boswell is on public record against the NSA warrant less wiretaps. Which, in the hands of a Rovian evil genius, is great grist for false and misleading negative ads against Congressman Boswell, and others, painting them as soft on terrorism. Rove has already said publicly, many times, he wants this election to be about national security. A Karl Rove type could make great political hay out of opposition to NSA spying, equating it with being weak on national security. (That isn’t true, of course, but has that ever stopped these folks before?).

Finally, there are two more signs this is a classic dirty trick. Why use taped messages. Why not live callers, which by all accounts, would be more effective? Because live callers might make mistakes -- such as revealing their location, or for whom they work. Note, too, the call came up as “unavailable” on caller i.d. Why not at least put something generic on the caller i.d. (say, “Acme Company”), to make it more likely folks will answer the phone? Because, again, that might provide clue(s) as to who is behind this dirty push poll.

Gordon R. Fischer

Posted by: Gordon R. Fischer | Feb 22, 2006 1:53:17 PM

Am I missing something or is an obvious connection being missed. While the polls are "targeting" both republican and democrats, the common element is that they are targeting representatives who support Bush on the intercepts. Could it just possibly be that some group is using this means to erode support for representatives who are supporting Bush, regardless of their party? If so, wouldn't you look at the anti-Bush groups as a starting place?

Since the story seems to be fizziling for the left, I could imagine some true blue believer trying to push it through something like this.

Posted by: yetanotherjohn | Feb 22, 2006 2:16:46 PM

I call this the seed underneath the soil that you don't know is there. Years ago Madison Ave. came up with the following form of advertising. At any time during a TV program, a picture of a product would pop up on your screen, last a nano second and disappear. Your conscious mind would not record it, but your unconscious mind would. Later at the market, you would pull the product off the shelf, pay for it, and never realize why. Fortunately, this little ploy was nipped in the bud. The point is many political advertising methods are very similar to the Madison Ave. one.

Posted by: felicity smith | Feb 22, 2006 2:28:25 PM

The Republicans used robo-polls extensively in my area in 2004 and it seemed to have worked well for them. Although we have registration by party, they were able to determine quickly and cheaply which of the Ds and Is were going to vote R.

Posted by: Lilly | Feb 22, 2006 2:45:40 PM

Boswell took a public position in late January that we needed a classified Congressional hearing on the program:


So yeah, it's definitely some kind of push polling going on. The fact that Gordon has heard from so many people probably means that this wasn't a regular sized sample, either.

The Sweeney stuff still doesn't make any sense though - it would be stupid to do a large scale opinion canvass on behalf of a candidate with the language they used. Why not just ask whether the individual supported the wiretapping program, and then follow that up with direct mail touting his support to people who agreed? I'm not spongin what you're spillin on NY.

Posted by: Drew Miller | Feb 22, 2006 2:52:09 PM

wait a minute! I received this call, and I'm in CT-02 with a Republican congressman. I didn't feel that it was a push poll, couldn't get any sense of where the caller was coming from. Also, I didn't have time to read all the comments, but...they use robo calls because they are very cheap to do.

Posted by: Mary | Feb 22, 2006 3:00:37 PM

Well, if it comes up as a blocked call or unknown caller in the caller id of anyone who's received it, there could be a blog synergy investigation moment here. Take Americablog's investigation into companies that will sell your phone records to anyone for $100 and find out where the calls are originating from. That's a good first step.

Posted by: The Critic | Feb 22, 2006 3:16:56 PM

Hey, I got this call in Michigan weeks ago. So it is a national push-poll that's been going on for a bit now.

In my call, they used the phrase "domestic wiretapping." It also made absolutely no mention of "without a warrant" since that's what I ranted at my Congressman about afterwards.

Must have taken my advice and updated the question.

Posted by: Ken | Feb 22, 2006 3:24:15 PM

This will only help some of the time, but if you have a voice mail service from your home or cell phone provider (i.e. not an answering machine in your house) and you get these types of calls or any other illegal or offensive calls on your voice mail, there is a way to download them. Go to www.GotVoice.com and sign up for a free account, then if there's a message on your voice mail that you want to save, have this service log in to your voice mail and retrieve the message. At that point, you can listen over the internet or download it as an MP3 file, which you can then email or do whatever you need with it.

The company seems trustworthy. I've been using it for a few months with no problems. If you're really concerned about giving some third-party company access to your voice mail, set up GotVoice to think that your voice mail password is 1234. Then, when you want to download a voice message, change your password to 1234, download the message, then change it back.

Posted by: Bob | Feb 22, 2006 3:24:21 PM

"Years ago Madison Ave. came up with the following form of advertising. At any time during a TV program, a picture of a product would pop up on your screen, last a nano second and disappear. Your conscious mind would not record it, but your unconscious mind would. Later at the market, you would pull the product off the shelf, pay for it, and never realize why. "

Your point notwithstanding, the subliminal advertising you are referencing never in fact existed -- or at least there's no evidence it existed. There's also no evidence it would be effective if it was in use. I would call the push poll subtle and unethical, but not subliminal, per se.

Posted by: Boss Tweed | Feb 22, 2006 3:37:50 PM

I got one of these calls at home in Western NY and they were asking about Republican Randy Kuhl. It was about 2 weeks ago, so the details about who called are fuzzy. However I do recall a reference to Al Gore, the wiretapping program, and would I vote for Kuhl based on his support (or non-support--can't remember which) for the program. Sounds like the same outfit.

Posted by: Lisa | Feb 22, 2006 3:44:55 PM

this is clearly a variant of the classic push-poll ... the object, rather than being taking down a candidate, is to gain traction for the wiretapping among the general public by suggesting that the local congresscritter favors it ... this is an attempt to affect a narrow-focus right-/wrong-track evaluation of wiretaps (along with stopping the drop in right-/wrong-track terror evaluation) ...

the short duration - robot calls that allow for massive repetition - make it clear that this is a PR operation ...

Posted by: wystler | Feb 22, 2006 4:34:00 PM

Wouldn't it be possible to have the call traced? Tell the phone co. that you received an abusive call at a certain time and you need to know the identity of the caller.

Posted by: Calvin | Feb 22, 2006 4:48:10 PM

"We now have sophisticated polls, complicated computers, detailed voting databases, the internet, and more. But the basics of winning remain what they were. We have to "make a perfect list of all the voters" and see to it our supporters are brought to the polls by someone they hold in confidence."
Karl Rove, same speech

Posted by: LoneDem | Feb 22, 2006 7:03:27 PM

John Sweeney has gotten on the bad side of George Pataki and the New York Republican party. His Democratic opponent, Kirsten Gillibrand, is getting support from some of Pataki's former donors and consultants.
See http://www.dailykos.com/story/2006/1/4/0553/06531.

Maybe the push polling in NY-20 the work of Republicans after all.

Posted by: SwarthmoreDem | Feb 22, 2006 10:29:56 PM

My phone rang last week with one of these targeting John Salazar (D-CO). I live in Durango, CO.

Posted by: Peter Tregillus | Feb 23, 2006 10:35:16 AM

I live in Pekin Il and received a call on Friday night asking if I wanted the current abortion laws to stay the same or to restrict them. Then they told me if I knew that the Democrate running for congress in my district was pro-abortion. They did not give a name of who they were calling from. I guess I am confused because the Republican congressman in my distict, has had 7 runs without any problems. Not a major candidate this time.

Posted by: Steve Lehman | Feb 27, 2006 11:41:44 AM

In in Sweeney's district. My girlfriend got one of these polls, but remembers it slightly differently. (She admits she wasn't paying that much attention.)

My theory is different. To me, this sounds like some national organization is trying to determine which Congressional races to put money into, and only secondarily to gauge how significant the wiretapping issue is to those races.

Posted by: Hudson | Apr 4, 2006 11:35:00 PM

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