The Mitt Romney campaign is backpedalling after launching a deceptive voter polling effort.
Through this morning, likely GOP voters in Michigan were getting calls collecting "voter research on the upcoming Republican Presidential Primary." The short survey — asking six questions ranging from the voter's gender and candidate preference, to their religious afiliation and stance on abortion — never identified the name of the pollster. The call simply ended with this line: "Thank you for your time. You can reach us at 866-540-3140."
When you call that number no one actually picks up. A recorded female voice tells callers — "Thank you for calling Independent Voter Research, at this time all agents are unavailable" — followed abruptly by a busy signal.
Now here's the peculiar part: There was nothing independent about this research. It was being conducted by the Romney campaign — on the down low.
The callers themselves were volunteers using the "Call From Home" tool of the campaign's "MyMitt" social network. (Rolling Stone discovered the misleading script while testing out the functionality of MyMitt.) Volunteers plug their own phone numbers into the tool. A central system then calls the volunteers and begins connecting them, on an automated basis, to the voters in Michigan being polled. This autodialing speeds the process, but it also obscures the volunteer's phone number for caller ID purposes.
The covert nature of the Romney call-from-home effort stood in stark contrast to volunteer calls made on behalf of the Obama campaign, which instructs volunteers use their own phones and provides scripts that clearly identify the caller as a volunteer for Obama for America. (Currently, the campaign is asking volunteers to reach out to other voters to talk up the President's State of the Union agenda.)
Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center, is puzzled by the Romney camp's use of at-home campaign volunteers to conduct voter research: "I've never heard of this kind of technique," he says.
Keeter is also the president of the American Association for Public Opinion Reaseach, which upholds the profession's Code of Professional Ethics and Practice. He speculates that the campaign may have been hoping to improve the quality of its data by not volunteering that it was underwriting the survey. "But where they run afoul is the norms of transparency," he says, "is if you attempt to get in touch with this 'independent' polling organization — if it even exists — and you never can. It should always be possible for you to find out who's behind a poll."
This reporter tried a half dozen times at all hours throughout the business day to contact Independent Voter Research on the phone number and always got the same dead-end voicemail. The firm maintains no evident web presence.
When I contacted the Romney campaign about the deceptive practice, press secretary Andrea Saul first requested time to look into the situation. She wrote back an hour later to announce that the caller script had been changed:
"The wrong file was inadvertently uploaded," Saul writes. "This has already been fixed so that our identity is clear. The script you saw was only available for use for one business day."
A screenshot of the original script provided to Romney volunteers (with answers filled in at random) is provided below. The updated script now omits the phone contact and reads at the end, "This call was paid for by Romney for President, Inc."