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February 23, 2006

TPM Cafe-Cross Post: The Roboscam Calls

[Note:  MP is cross-posting the following at the site TPM Cafe.  It mostly reviews material that will be familiar to regular readers, but does include another update on the current list of members of Congress whose districts have been identified as having received the "Roboscam" calls.  The count is now five Democrats and six Republicans]

Over the last few days, on my blog Mystery Pollster, we have been following the story (here and here) I have dubbed "Roboscam."  It involves an apparently widespread campaign of automated telephone calls placed into competitive House races that ask just two "questions" about President Bush's domestic wiretapping program.  The automated calling scheme falls somewhere between classic push polling and an unethical and possibly illegal effort to collect personal data under the false guise of an opinion poll. 

Although reports from recipients have been inconsistent on some details, a common pattern has emerged:  Over the last few weeks, someone has placed telephone calls under the guise of an automated survey to voters in at least a dozen competitive House districts.  Those who respond hear just two questions that they are instructed to answer by pressing the buttons on their touch tone phones.  The first asks whether they support or oppose President Bush's wiretapping program after a statement that names their member of Congress and claims they "support" Bush on the wiretapping issue.  Some recipients of the calls say the statement also mentions former Vice President Al Gore's opposition to the wiretapping.  The poll then asks whether the respondent plans to support their member of Congress for reelection.  After two questions, the "survey" ends.

The relatively few who can remember say the calls initially identify the sponsor as "USA Polling."  Although a USA Polling Group does exist (an academic survey call center at the University of South Alabama), an official there tells me they have no ability to place automated calls and have been bombarded with calls and emails from angry recipients of the recorded calls who tracked them down over the Internet. The apparent attempt to impersonate the work of the legitimate automated pollster SurveyUSA has led their president Jay Leve to offer a $1000 reward to the first person who can provide a "clean tape recording from beginning to end."

I have so far logged reports from readers, bloggers and media outlets of eleven members of Congress whose districts have been called.  Five are Democrats and six are Republicans (any public reports are linked in parentheses):

Leonard Boswell, IA-03 (IowaTrueBlue)
Stephanie Herseth, SD-at large
Brian Higgins, NY-27
John Salazar, CO-03 (Pueblo Chieftan, junctiondailyblog)
Jim Matheson, UT-02

Mike Ferguson, NJ-07
Randy Kuhl, NY-29 
Bob Ney, OH-18 (Greydoesmatter)
Mike Rogers, MI 
Don Sherwood, PA-10
John Sweeney, NY-20 (Glen Falls Post Star, Albany Times Union)

One key characteristic of the calls is the consistent claim that the local member of Congress -Democrat and the Republican alike - "supports" Bush's domestic wiretapping program.  As such, the calls certainly misstate the positions of both Salazar and Boswell (and possibly others), who have both spoken out against the wiretapping program.  As discussed in much greater depth on Mystery Pollster, these calls fit the classic pattern of the so-called "push poll," which is not a poll at all but a fraud that aims to spread a usually false claim under the guise of a survey. 

The intentions of those sponsoring the calls are unclear, but in the case of the Democratic districts the goal may be to help spur Democratic partisans who strongly oppose the Bush wiretapping to call their representatives to complain about their alleged "support"' of the program.  The call sponsors may be hoping to push Democratic candidates further to the left on wiretapping, to sow dissention in the Democratic ranks, or both.  Strident attacks by Democrats on the wiretapping issue would help create the "debate" that Bush advisor Karl Rove signaled he is eager for in a speech to the Republican National Committee last month.

The goal of the calls in the Republican districts is less clear.  My own theory is that these calls are part of a widespread effort to "harvest data" on reactions to the wiretapping issue to be appended to voter files for the sort of micro-targeting that is now all the rage among campaign cognoscenti. While a political canvass under the guise of a survey may not be illegal, it is certainly the type of "abuse" that the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) has condemned for "exploit[ing] the legitimacy and credibility of the scientific research process."

It is worth remembering, of course, that we do not know for sure who is making these calls. The tactic seems more consistent with the current strategy of the Republicans for 2006 than the Democrats, but I certainly cannot rule out the possibility that some entity on the far Left -- someone who wants to push moderate Democrats to more strident opposition on the wiretapping issue -- may be the sponsor.

Regardless of the motivation, all of the calls appear to violate the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) of 1991 that requires all automated calls to identify the entity sponsoring the call and provide a working telephone number that recipients can call to request they be placed on a do not call list.  None of those who have so far reported receiving the calls remember hearing either a telephone number or the name of the entity actually making the calls (the apparently phony "USA Polling" reference does not count). 

So what can we do to fight the Roboscam calls?  I am told that either the FCC or a State Attorney General has the power to investigate or file suit over violations of the TCPA.  I would imagine any such investigation would have the power to seek a warrant to have the calls traced through telephone company records (oh the irony in that possibility). 

Of course, before that can happen those of us in the blogosphere need to help gather the facts and tell the story by linking to this page. I strongly urge anyone who has received similar calls to post a comment, email me with the details, or both. 

Related Entries - Push "Polls" , Roboscam

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on February 23, 2006 at 05:34 PM in Push "Polls" , Roboscam | Permalink


If that USA Polling thing that was recorded by the Survey USA employee is the same as this one, it seems like they aren't even recording the answers. If that's so, then it makes the Republican district push extremely confusing.

Posted by: Drew Miller | Feb 23, 2006 11:38:58 PM

New to MP's site, long time lurker though.

I'm inclined to side with Mark. I think one explanation for why do it in competitive Republican districts is to GOTV for the rep. That is, to plant the seed that the rep is in favor of the wiretapping and "sides" with the president.

This will encourage the party faithful to go vote in Novemeber when the inevitable oppo TV spots lambaste the Dem challenger as being weak on national security.

Presumably another goal is to also "blackmail" the rep into publically avowing support for the program, which also sounds very consistent with Rove's usual MO.

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