More Strange "Poll" Calls

12/10/2007 06:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mark Blumenthal Mark Blumenthal is the Head of Election Polling at SurveyMonkey.

More strange "poll" calls from Iowa. Ben Smith has posted details of a call received by a reader in Eastern Iowa of a short poll that tested three messages. Smith summarizes them as "roughly" the following:

1. While in the Senate Hillary Clinton was one of the first Democrats to support Bush tax cuts for only the wealthiest of Americans at the expense of the middle class, do you find this...

2. Barack Obama has taken over $12million from lobbyists and other special interests since his time in the Illinois legislature. Does Barack Obama taking money from lobbyists and special interests trouble you?

3. John Edwards has taken the position that all troops in Iraq will be out within one year of his being elected president, do you find this rhetoric irresponsible?

Smith ads that the caller "said she was with 'Independent Research,' and the caller ID showed a phone bank called DRS Acquisitions." DRS Acquisitions is a company that, as its web page says, specializes in "national outbound telemarketing programs." I emailed Smith, who shared the reader's full description. The call also asked first about the respondents likelihood of attending the caucuses, his vote preference and a question about the type of candidate he most favors:

1. Fighter against special interests

2. Bold fighter for middle class families

3. Committed to getting us out of Iraq

4. Fight for universal healthcare

The negative message test followed the item above. Smith's reader also reports that he interrupted the interview, and ultimately ended the call, after hearing the negative messages.

This call sounds similar to one I found among the calls reported by the first wave of respondents to the HuffingtonPost OffTheBus polling project (we are sponsors). An Edwards supporter who lives near Des Moines reported receiving a call last week. The caller insisted he was working for "an independent polling company," asked her vote preference and the certainty of her support and then asked about the following:

[Asked] If I knew that Barack Obama (pronounced incorrect! I had to instruct the interviewer how to pronounce his name!!) took over 12 million from the financial industries and voted to allow credit card companies to raise interest rates as high as they wanted to, would that affect my opinion of him? I answered yes.

If I knew that John Edwards was a liberal trial lawyer would that affect my opinion of him? I answered yes.

Do I feel that the American Dream is achievable by average Americans or do I think the system seems to be rigged to favor the rich. - I said - rigged.

One more question that I didn't get written down right away so I don't remember it was along the line of Which would be most upsetting to me - a candidate who would roll back the Bush tax cuts, or ...2 other answers that I can't remember. Sorry!

Added that their survey ended with demographic questions on age, income and union membership.

So what are these calls about? I have no idea who is making the calls, and we will drive ourselves crazy trying to deduce the sponsor or sponsors from the facts above, or even whether Smith's call was part of the same project as the OffTheBus report. The entity or entities behind these calls are clever enough to include "negatives" on all three front-runners, making it virtually impossible to deduce much of anything about sponsorship from the questions themselves.

These calls do not seem to fit the profile of the classic "push poll" dirty trick. In retrospect, I think we can say the same of the calls Smith reported a few weeks back that he traced to a telemarketing company named Influent. That is, these do not appear to be calls masquerading as a poll that intends to measure nothing and exists only to spread a malicious rumor. The calls described above include too many questions that would be pointless as part of a fraudulent "push poll" dirty trick.

On the other hand, these calls resemble few internal campaign polls I have seen, and sound nothing like what I would expect from the internal campaign pollsters. They are far too short, and leave out many of the sorts of questions that campaign pollsters typically ask at this stage of such a well funded, closely watched campaign. And with the caucuses less than a month away, it is a bit late for true "micro-targeting." So the exact nature of these calls remains a bit of a puzzle.

Still, I do see two stories here. The first is about the blurring of the lines between traditional polling and telemarketing. Campaigns have for many years used paid call centers to conduct "voter ID" calls, that is, calls intended to identify supporters and those still undecided. Increasingly, those calls have grown to resemble polls. However, the use of such calls to test negative messages is something new in my experience.

And second, whatever the nature of these calls, I think we can also conclude something about what they portend. Political commentators, including yours truly, have been speculating about when the Democratic television advertising will turn negative in Iowa and New Hampshire. At this point, for a variety of reasons, such a turn seems unlikely. However, these calls tell us a very well targeted negative mail campaign is imminent from someone, or more likely, several someones. Those looking to cover "Act III" of the Iowa campaign would be well advised to watch the mailboxes of Iowa voters.

Meanwhile, if you have been on the receiving end of one of these calls, please email me or report it to HuffPo's OnTheBus polling project.