November 19, 2007

Push Polling: Whodunit?

The scandal of the day in the Republican primary race is a whodunit worthy of Ellery Queen. A survey taken by a firm named Western Wats turned into a strange anti-Mormon and anti-Mitt Romney push poll. No campaign has taken credit for the poll, and no campaign has been spared accusations of conducting it -- including Romney's own campaign.

Jim Geraghty appeared on Heading Right Radio to explain the erupting scandal, and he has been covering it at the Campaign Spot all day long. Mark Hemingway wrote at NRO that he suspected Mitt himself was behind it:

However, there’s a growing chorus of voices speculating Romney push polled himself. “I smell a dirty trick. I suspect a pro-Romney motive to inoculate against future use of the religious issue and to breed sympathy for Romney … a 20-minute call is the work of an amateur. The long call is designed to get ALL the negatives out, to put them off limits for future attacks,” Roger Stone — a master of Republican dirty tricks — told The Politico’s Jonathan Martin. Stone pointed out that Robert F. Kennedy was behind anti-Catholic campaign tricks — calls and literature — to help get the first Catholic president elected. An anonymous website attacking Fred Thompson with ties to the Romney consultants in South Carolina earlier this cycle suggests such earnestness may not be below Romney campaigners.

Asked if it’s reasonable to think a campaign would do such a thing — push poll itself — one political consultant familiar with phone banking and dirty tricks who asked not to be identified told NRO, “I’ve done it,” he said. “But it’s usually the kind of thing that you do in a close state-senate race, not a stunt you pull under the scrutiny a presidential campaign is subjected to.”

To me, this sounds absurd. Romney doesn't need the headaches associated with this kind of polling; he already knows that a small percentage of people have a prejudice against Mormons strong enough to keep them from voting for him. If he wanted to do a poll that identified the percentage, the poll questions wouldn't have delved into Mormon history and Romney's deferment while he was on his Mormon mission. He would simply have polled to determine those who would never vote for Romney and the reasons why, questions that every legitimate pollster asks.

Some pointed the finger towards John McCain, but that makes less sense than Romney. As Hemingway pointed out, the live survey cost a lot of money -- and money isn't a luxury for the McCain campaign. Even more to the point, McCain simply isn't the kind of candidate to beat an anti-Mormon drum. Arizona has plenty of Mormons who voted for McCain in the past, and he isn't about to alienate them with a dumb stunt like this. If anything, McCain has a bigger stake in playing nice to Mormons than Romney does.

Fred Thompson doesn't have the kind of on-hand cash that would pay for this, so scratch the other maverick from the list. For that matter, the bill would be outside the reach of Mike Huckabee's team, too. Neither are likely to have sunk that kind of investment into sinking so low.

One of the firms has an indirect link to Rudy Giuliani, so some speculate that Team Rudy may have commissioned the poll. They have money, having successfully raised funds all year long. However, Rudy leads national polling and doesn't need to fight dirty against Romney. Rudy also is a shrewd politician, and his campaign is staffed by seasoned professionals who wouldn't touch this kind of tactic.

That doesn't leave much. Some speculate that a Democratic campaign underwrote the push poll, but that makes even less sense than any of the GOP candidates. Why push-poll against someone who hasn't yet won the nomination, and someone who so far doesn't look like much of a lock for the nod?

Ellery Queen would be hard put to figure this out. The real suspect has likely not yet appeared on the stage. My best guess is that it will turn out to be a 527-type organization, perhaps an inexperienced political group attempting to kneecap Romney in Iowa or New Hampshire. Whomever it is, they won't find many friends in the Republican Party after this stunt.


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Republican presidential hopeful, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney talks with members of the media at the Little America hotel and resort in Cheyenne, Wyo. Sunday evening Nov. 18, 2007. The MAIN FLAP this morning: Did Mitt Romney Push Poll Himself? There ... [Read More]