The GOP Has Their Own Controversial Robopollster

The NRCC’s former polling director opened his own robopolling firm last year, and some other Republicans aren’t happy about it.

National Journal
Steven Shepard
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Steven Shepard
Sept. 13, 2013, 8:09 a.m.

At a meet­ing of prom­in­ent party poll­sters hos­ted by the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee this spring, one vet­er­an sug­ges­ted the com­mit­tee form­ally ad­vise can­did­ates against con­tract­ing with com­pan­ies that used auto­mated tech­no­logy to con­duct sur­veys.

On its face, that sug­ges­tion made sense: Auto­mated, or in­ter­act­ive-voice re­sponse, polls don’t call cell phones, and thus they seem to run afoul of guidelines pro­posed this spring by the RNC and the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee. But auto­mated polls don’t re­quire hu­man in­ter­view­ers, so they are much cheap­er to con­duct than live-caller sur­veys. And since sur­vey costs are in­creas­ing rap­idly — as Amer­ic­ans move away from tra­di­tion­al land­line phones and are gen­er­ally less re­cept­ive to par­ti­cip­at­ing in polls even if they are reached — auto­mated sur­veys are be­ing used with in­creas­ing fre­quency by cam­paigns and the parties’ cam­paign com­mit­tees. Both the NR­CC and the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee began con­duct­ing their own in­ter­act­ive-voice re­sponse sur­veys in the last elec­tion cycle as a sup­ple­ment to the mil­lions of dol­lars in live-caller polls they com­mis­sion.

It also didn’t help that the poll­ster who made the sug­ges­tion at the RNC poll­ster meet­ing did so while sit­ting only a few feet from Brock Mc­Cle­ary, the 2012 polling dir­ect­or for the NR­CC who has now es­tab­lished his own robopolling firm, Harp­er Polling. Mc­Cle­ary didn’t say a word; he didn’t need to, giv­en that the sug­ges­tion seem­ingly came out of left field in a con­text in which auto­mated polls wer­en’t even be­ing dis­cussed.

The un­com­fort­able in­cid­ent served to un­der­score the ten­sion that ex­ists between poll­sters who want to in­nov­ate and ex­per­i­ment with emer­ging tech­niques and those who are com­fort­able us­ing older, here­to­fore re­li­able meth­ods of sur­vey re­search, a ten­sion that is the sub­ject of a new story I wrote for Na­tion­al Journ­al magazine, pub­lished this week and avail­able to Na­tion­al Journ­al mem­bers. The story out­lines how the RNC and NR­CC have tried to man­date cer­tain meth­od­o­lo­gic­al stand­ards in an ef­fort to ad­dress some of the party’s in­ac­cur­ate 2012 polling — and the de­gree to which GOP cam­paign poll­sters are co­oper­at­ing with the ef­fort.

Harp­er’s Mc­Cle­ary was the only poll­ster in­vited to the meet­ings who primar­ily uses in­ter­act­ive-voice re­sponse, or auto­mated, phone calls. In mul­tiple in­ter­views earli­er this year, he bal­anced de­fend­ing his meth­od­o­logy — be­cause they must use auto­mat­ic dialers, IVR sur­veys are banned by fed­er­al law from call­ing cell phones — with the NR­CC’s re­com­mend­a­tions. (The RNC pro­to­cols in­cluded a spe­cif­ic carve-out for auto­mated polls.)

“The most ac­cur­ate poll­sters in the coun­try [were] PPP and Purple Strategies” dur­ing the 2012 elec­tion cycle, he said, nam­ing two prom­in­ent auto­mated poll­sters. “I’m cer­tainly see­ing that there’s an in­cred­ible amount of in­terest” in auto­mated polls so far in the 2014 cycle.

IVR polls have been in the spot­light this week, as the Demo­crat­ic firm Pub­lic Policy Polling has been en­gaged in a spir­ited back-and-forth about its con­tro­ver­sial meth­od­o­logy with Nate Sil­ver of ES­PN and Nate Cohn of The New Re­pub­lic. But Sil­ver’s and Cohn’s cri­ti­cism of PPP has been mostly lim­ited to unique quirks in­volving their busi­ness prac­tices and meth­od­o­logy, not an over­all de­bate about auto­mated polling (though one could cer­tainly ar­gue that some of PPP’s meth­od­o­lo­gic­al quirks stem from the in­her­ent lim­it­a­tions in­volved with IVR sur­veys).

The de­bate among Re­pub­lic­ans is more ba­sic: Should the party be sup­port­ing auto­mated polling, even as the growth of cell phones and aban­don­ment of land­lines means those polls are reach­ing a smal­ler seg­ment of the elect­or­ate? And is there an in­her­ent con­tra­dic­tion in in­vit­ing an auto­mated poll­ster to par­ti­cip­ate in meet­ings ask­ing live-caller firms to in­crease their costs by call­ing more cell phones?

Mc­Cle­ary, for his part, sup­ports call­ing more cell phones in gen­er­al, a re­com­mend­a­tion made by both com­mit­tees. But he down­played the ef­fects that would have in in­creas­ing ac­cur­acy. “Even as the lone IVR poll­ster of the group, I am in sup­port of call­ing more cell phones,” he said. “I just think you need to have a real­ist­ic idea of what that means in terms of ac­cur­acy.”

Oth­er poll­sters dis­missed auto­mated polling as a vi­able path in the fu­ture, as the pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ues to move away from land­line tele­phones. “The one thing about the IVR polls, that’s go­ing to be a tough in­dustry for them, be­cause they can al­ways do it cheap­er, but only some­times they’ll be right, be­cause they can’t do the cell phones,” said GOP poll­ster John McLaugh­lin.

Mc­Cle­ary’s par­ti­cip­a­tion in the pro­cess, along with the busi­ness he’s star­ted tak­ing from the NR­CC thus far this cycle, has led to some con­sterna­tion among oth­er, more tra­di­tion­al GOP poll­sters. “It’s send­ing a very con­flict­ing mes­sage,” said one GOP poll­ster who spoke on the con­di­tion of an­onym­ity. “The NR­CC is telling their polling vendors to [call] a spe­cif­ic num­ber of cell phones. Then they’re go­ing around and us­ing IVR polling from their former polit­ic­al dir­ect­or.”

“You toe the line care­fully here,” the poll­ster con­tin­ued. “You don’t want to piss off folks and say the NR­CC is just help­ing out one of their guys and giv­ing them busi­ness.”

Mc­Cle­ary stressed that the NR­CC re­com­mend­a­tions came from meet­ings with the poll­sters them­selves, and that they ap­plied only to live-caller polls, not auto­mated ones. “Party com­mit­tees [were] do­ing IVR polling pri­or to this cycle,” he said. “We still need to do the two meth­od­o­lo­gies, not in com­pet­i­tion, but com­ple­ment­ary to each oth­er.”

The GOP cri­ti­cism of Mc­Cle­ary and Harp­er hasn’t been con­fined to not-for-dir­ect-at­tri­bu­tion quotes. This spring, after a Harp­er poll showed GOP nom­in­ee Gab­ri­el Gomez trail­ing Demo­crat Ed­ward Mar­key by 12 points in the spe­cial elec­tion for a Sen­ate seat in Mas­sachu­setts, Brad Dayspring, the com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee, said the Harp­er sur­vey “might as well have been writ­ten in cray­on.”

Mar­key won by 10 points.

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