Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Who the Heck is Joe Nation?

The following rather startling email, sent to the campaign of one Joe Nation, was cc'd to me this morning. 

To whom it may concern:

I got a call two nights ago from someone affiliated with a company called Peter Hart Research purporting to do a "survey" about a California state Senate race. The survey, it turned out, was actually a glorified smear-campaign targeted at Joe Nation. A good six or seven questions at the end of it recited a litany of impliedly disparaging things about Joe Nation, and then asked, "having heard X, Y, and Z, are you more or less likely to vote for Joe Nation?"

Frankly, I had never heard of Joe Nation, and wasn't even aware that there was a state Senate race in progress. But I thought that you should know that this was happening, and urge you to follow up on it. In the case of the particular survey that I took, I asked what Peter Hart Research was, and was told, erroneously, that it is an independent research organization. I know that that was erroneous because I subsequently had a conversation with a guy at Peter Hart Research, one David Drembus, who explained that their surveyor had improperly gone off-script, and that they are, indeed, a gun for hire doing work for one of Mr. Nation's competitors.

At the very least, I am appalled by the tactic of pushing information intending to be damning of a competing candidate in a forum designed to appear unbiased. At worst, I wonder if any state fraud laws, or federal election laws, may have been violated.

If you are interested in investigating this incident further, I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

[A Boalt Hall Student]

A cursory Google search indicates Joe Nation is a Democratic Senate candidate for California's 6th Congressional District (Marin and Sonoma Counties).

And Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc., founded in 1971, describes itself as a "strategic research, not just polling or market research" firm.

04/24/08: Little update here . . .

I learned a great deal about polling this week, mostly from people who took the time to email me and explain the issues surrounding polling and testing of political messages. Turns out, it's far more complex than I made it sound. Frankly, it's far more complex than I understand. You can see I have redacted the push poll comment, and softened my admittedly confused position. Thanks to the four of you who took the time to educate me a bit.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Testing negative messages is a long-established and entirely legitimate part of political polling. Candidates use their private polling -- which this certainly was -- to test negative messages on both themselves and their opponents. The facts tested are generally accurate (if perhaps spun in a certain direction). It is how candidates know what to use when they go "negative" (see, e.g., HRC in PA) and how to innoculate themselves against likely attacks.

PUSH "polls" are a different matter. They aren't even really polls. Telephone banks call up voters and, in the guise of polling about voter preferences, deliver (usually) untruthful attacks on certain candidates. The "messages' tested are usually egregiously untruthful.

Hart Research is a respected and successful Democratic polling firm. They've worked for the some of the best candidates in the party. While this particular caller may have gone off-script, there is no doubt in my mind that the poll was written professionally.

Every political pollster hates it when a) they are confused with push "polls," and b) when people like this letter-writer get called and then go public (mostly because it means the opponent might learn which negative messages their client is considering)

4/23/2008 10:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh, everyone does it, so it's ok. I feel so much better now.

4/23/2008 10:44 AM  
Anonymous John said...

Please leave this boring, irrelevant and worthless crap off N&Bs. There's enough garbage as it is. It's such a bummer to check the blog, get excited about a new post and then be totally deflated at its utter pointlessness. What a tease.

4/23/2008 10:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good one.

4/23/2008 10:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear John,

Please leave your boring, irrelevant and worthless comments off N&Bs. There's enough garbage as it is. It's such a bummer to check the blog, get excited about a new comment and then be totally deflated at its utter pointlessness. What a tease.

4/23/2008 10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John was rude, but John is right. This was a weird post. I'll scroll on by and all, but I think Patrick might need his own separate blog to talk about "things I finds interesting" or "things that might remotely involve the law." An occasional basketball tangent on here is one thing, but are the bloggers even trying to stick to things that are at least tangentially Boalt-related anymore?

4/23/2008 11:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just FYI, Peter Hart spent some time at Berkeley a few years ago teaching at the Goldman School.

4/23/2008 11:53 AM  
Blogger Armen said...

Where's this "related to Boalt" crap coming from? It's fairly recent. Granted, the Boalt/Berkeley discussions tend to create the comment clusuterf*cks, but there have also always been posts about law in general, politics, international affairs, The Simpsons, UCLA, sports, etc.

I'm just trying to understand the mindset here. You can say whatever you want as an anonymous commenter, but have to tailor our posts to your tastes? Frankly, I'm dying for another EW political post, but after the ignoble response to the last one, I don't blame him for not bothering. Honestly, a little less sense of entitlement. But constructive criticism, by all means.

4/23/2008 12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I miss the EW posts, too.

4/23/2008 12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Armen that posts do need to relate to Boalt and that those who comment have no right to totally dictate the direction of the blog. I also think erring on the side of more posting rather than less is the way to go. But buried in this discussion somewhere is the reality that pointless posts push down good posts, and lead to fewer comments and less good discussion. It's a tough balance but a balance nonetheless. It's not like N&Bs audience has a huge attention span. It's a blog that people check largely during class.

4/23/2008 12:19 PM  
Blogger Earl Warren said...

As the first commenter astutely pointed out, there's a big difference between polling potential negative attacks (either for or against you) and doing a push poll.

From the context of the letter, it's impossible to discern what was really going on. "Impliedly disparaging" seems like lawyer-in-training-speak for "not nice." But we'd need to know what X, Y, and Z actually were to classify the poll.

For instance: "Joe Nation takes money from oil companies and then votes in their favor in the Legislature"? Legitimate poll.

"Joe Nation eats babies and then shits on church pews"? Push poll.

One other thing: I doubt a legitimate firm like Hart Research would be involved in a push poll; if they were, it'd be blockbuster news for political geeks. And I can't imagine they'd be so stupid as to let the name of their agency get anywhere near the push-poll callers.

Indeed, generally, push poll companies are fly-by-night operations with nothing but a phone bank (possibly from overseas) and sub-minimum-wage "employees" reading scripts. The calls last more. And all this is done to minimize costs, since you're trying to dial 5, 10, 15k numbers in a district.

A legitimate poll, on the other hand, is longer, the person on the other side sounds genuine, receives training...and they only call 400-500 people to get a sample for a local race. Calling any more is a waste of money (and whatever 'negatives' are tested aren't going to sway a race when you call only 400 people).

Bottom line: If it was a legitimate poll designed to test attacks -- the kind every candidate on Earth uses -- please send the address of the Boalt student who sent the outraged letter. I too would like to live in a fairy tale world.

4/23/2008 12:27 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Well, for what it is worth, I was as surprised and disturbed as the letter writer was about the survey. I had always (without directly thinking about it) assumed there were rules or guidelines about what kind of questions could be asked in the name of polling and information gathering. So call me sheltered, I guess.

EW: Fairy tale world, as it turns out, is in San Francisco.

4/23/2008 12:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many states do have guidelines. Some states (MN comes to mind) provide that you have to reveal the identity of the client who is paying for the poll if the respondent asks.

But well written, professional polls don't cross those lines. Push polls often do.

4/23/2008 12:53 PM  

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