November, 21st 2007

Whoever commissioned the calls wanted Romney team members contacted

– Liz Mair

This morning, in the wake of the resurgence of Mormon-gate as a story, I've been doing some digging around. While I had hoped to write something on where we stand now, and what we know, including the results of my digging this morning, at an actual publication (as opposed to my own blog), with a few hours to go before everyone switches off for Thanksgiving, I'm bailing on that idea.

So, here goes.

1. As I read through the latest this morning, one point sprung out at me. It was the same point that sprung out at me when I found out last week that an Iowa State Rep. who had endorsed Romney was called. And that was, whoever commissioned this survey wanted Romney team members called. I say that without inclusion of the words "evidently" or "apparently" because it seemed to me that including people on Romney's payroll or publicly affiliated with the campaign in a call sample would be bad, and non-standard, practice. Including more than one such person (and thus far, we know of three included in the call sample) to me evidenced something beyond negligence.

2. Turns out my assumption, that it would be totally non-standard practice, to include those on payroll, at the very least, in a call sample is correct. 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. There are two points relevant to this situation to glean from this. First, it is definitely not standard to call people receiving money from a campaign-- as was done here. Second, pollsters determine who is called, not the firm conducting the calls.

3. This is consistent with other information I've obtained today. This morning, I spoke to Jeffrey Welch of Western Wats. We talked about the responsibility that Western Wats takes in relation to polling. Jeffrey underlined to me that Western Wats does not advise on, nor determine, who gets called as part of a given survey. They also do not advise on, nor determine, what questions are asked as part of a survey. Responsibility both for determining a call sample and survey questions rests with the consultant who instructs Western Wats. In other words, whoever instructs Western Wats designs a survey; Western Wats simply executes it. (Jeffrey also reiterated that Western Wats does not engage in push polling.)

So, a top pollster and the firm alleged to have made the calls in question both agree: consultants determine the questions and the call sample, calling firms solely execute the project.

Why is this relevant? Well, it indicates very, very strongly that whoever orchestrated the calls wanted these particular respondents-- who could be counted on to run to the media complaining about the calls-- contacted. Certainly, it was not up to Western Wats (allegedly) to determine who was called, so it wasn't an accident, mistake, oversight , or even deliberate action (perhaps to aid a candidate that some at the firm seem to strongly back) on their part that led to these people being called.

Of course, this still doesn't move us that much closer to determining who commissioned the calls-- but we do at least know now, with a very high degree of certainty, that the party that pushed them wanted people who would rush to the media, and had pre-existing biases included.

That again raises the question of who would benefit, not just from calls like this being made, but from them hitting the headlines so fast and so furiously. I revert to my position that the calls (and especially the publicity) in no way benefit McCain. They do not benefit Rudy (he wasn't even mentioned in the calls, and the only very early primary state he might beat Romney in is New Hampshire, where there's not much of an evangelical community to get stressed about the Mormon factor). They do not benefit Thompson. Again, he wasn't mentioned in the calls, and frankly, a look at early state polling data suggests that he's in no position to catch much of anyone, let alone Romney, let alone by orchestrating this kind of thing. The calls might benefit Huckabee, but in Iowa only, and calls were also made in New Hampshire and South Carolina-- suggesting, at least, that the number of calls would have been sufficient to be expensive enough that the Huckabee campaign wouldn't be able to afford it (meanwhile, I'm guessing that only handful of Huck supporters could, most if not all of whom would probably not be able to engineer something like this on their own).

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Romney does benefit from this, or at least members of his team seem to think so. In the words of one of them, "when people attack his religion he becomes an underdog, and people like underdogs." Moreover, we already know that at least one non-Romney-affiliated respondent developed significant sympathy for Romney as a result of the call.

Again, I'll underline that nothing, up to this point, conclusively shows that anyone associated with the Romney camp, let alone that the campaign itself (including the candidate) engineered the making of these calls. But, the more digging into this story occurs, the more it looks likely that someone affiliated with Romney in some form (rogue consultant, supporter or donor) may be responsible.

UPDATE: Marc Blumenthal makes the point that "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."

To be clear, the pollster I spoke to did not make his point about screening out those who were on a campaign's payroll specifically by reference to such "screening" questions. But he did say that where someone was receiving, say, $1000 a month in consulting fees, such a person would typically be "excluded." It may be that there's more variation in the screening out of such people than my contact let on, but he did indicate that members of the media and people on payroll are normally excluded when conducting a political survey. If, in fact, what my contact indicated is not correct (or not representative of how most polling firms operate), then I would absolutely agree that the fact that people on Romney payroll were included in the survey sample is not indicative of the poll being orchestrated solely to attract media attention. But I would underline that another political consultant I've spoken to on the topic, who has plenty of experience with polling, also agrees that it's non-standard for people on a campaign's payroll, or with major associations with a campaign (say, where the respondent is an endorser), to be called in the context of a survey such as this. Make of that what you will.

UPDATE NO 2: Justin Hart notes that Marshan and Rose, the two recipients of the calls who also happen to be on Romney's payroll, are about 70 years-old. That leads me to think that perhaps Rose (the one who suggested she'd received the call in question first on a Tuesday at 8pm, then on a Wednesday at 8:30pm) should be excused for the mixup. In other words, I'm walking a back just a tad what I wrote earlier about perhaps some fibbing being involved...

Also, Justin Hart has stepped down from Romney's Faith and Values Steering Committee. It appears that Justin felt that some bloggers were using his position on the committee against him, a position I'd say is understandable. I'm not going to speculate as to any possible "hidden" motives that Justin feels others may have implied, all I'm going to say to him is happy full time blogging, without distractions like committee service.