I am heartened to see the breathless response of the national media to the slimy survey calls being made to Iowa and New Hampshire voters that delve into obscure questions of Mitt Romney’s faith. It’s one thing that calls like this happen in today’s political cycle, but it would be something else entirely if no one got up in arms about it. This week’s response to these calls seems to guarantee that few will dare try something like this in the next few months (although all bets are off come the general election campaign, of course). Which is not to say we’ve seen the last of this in the primary, but anyone who had been considering such tactics will certainly think twice now, and spend more time covering his tracks than gaining newly anti-Mormon supporters.
I wanted to add one small point to everything that’s been said about these events in the last few days. Despite the appropriately furious reaction by many, one issue seems to have become a part of the narrative that should not be. If you read much of the coverage, you’ll find several stories that break down the difference between what took place here and “push polls,” asserting that the calls made to Iowan and NH were something else entirely. The term most often used is “message testing.” That is, these calls were just being made to test certain messages so that campaigns or other advocacy groups can better understand how to craft their talking points. *Okay, no big deal then, sorry to have made such a fuss.*
Hold on a second. There are two things to note here. First is that most of these stories are driven directly by sources at Western Wats (the polling company responsible for the calls). I called an old friend at Western Wats and got the same thing– we don’t do push polling, these were methodologically substantive pieces of survey research. Given that that’s the only information coming out of Western Wats, I understand why some people wanted to print it, but it just happens to be a huge piece of disinformational smokescreening. Regardless of the informational richness of the survey for Western Wats’ purposes, it makes not an iota’s worth of difference to America, Mormons, reporters, Romney, or anyone else that there is actual research going on here instead of calls for the sake of convincing voters. This is a distinction without a difference, and Western Wats is behind the blurring of the lines. (Push polls? We are waaaaaay above that. We only ask long lists of anti-Mormon questions when we care about the results!)
Which leads to my second point. The very argument suggests something far grander– that rather than just trying to convince the recipients of each call, the intention is actually to test and refine a message regarding anti-Mormonism that will then be broadcast on a much larger scale to use Romney’s religion against him. Why we should be sanguine about this angle is not evident to me? Did everyone miss what they’re calling these calls? Message testing! Whoever hired Western Wats to make these calls is interested in knowing how best to package Anti-Mormon bigotry to bring down Mitt Romney! (Okay, that’s way too many exclamation points. Let me calm down for a minute).
We should not buy the spin being offered on the nature of these calls. I’m no expert on telephone research (although I spent a year working for a Provo-based rival of Western Wats, so I’m happy to pose as an expert if you’d like), but I don’t think there’s any real difference at all between these calls and the push polls that became famous back in 2000. Both have the effect of persuading voters on completely irrelevant issues, both are dirty and underhanded, and both deserve outright condemnation and legal investigation. Let’s hope the anti-Mormon calls to Iowa and New Hampshire are met with both.