Robo-Calling and Dirty Tricks

Conn Carroll concisely sums up a controversy brewing in the Left-o-Sphere that has been, so far as I can tell, been ignored by the major blogs on the Right.

Talking Points Memo is leading lefty blogger reporting on robocalls going to voters throughout the country including NH-02, NY-19, IL-06, IL-08, CA-04, and CT-04. the calls begin: “I’m calling with information about [fill in name of Democratic candidate]” and then “goes on to bash the Democratic candidate.” TPM also reports if listeners try to hang up, they are automatically called back as many as eight times. Josh Marshall writes: “Hang-ups are the achilles heal of robo-calls. So this seems to be an attempt to cover for that weakness by making those who hang up think the Democratic candidate is basically harassing them with phone calls. The GOP wins either way.

Kevin Drum is more than a little steamed by the practice but mostly perplexed by the lack of mainstream press coverage:

This kind of tactic is only going to get more common unless the media trumpets it loud and clear and the Republican Party pays a price for it on Tuesday. Conversely, if it flies under the radar and helps produce a few GOP wins, they’ll do it again. And again. And again.

The NYT has a story in today’s edition. WaPo mentioned it several paragraphs into a front page story yesterday. TPM’s Paul Kiel found an AP story on this last week.

Evidence would seem to point to this as a widespread practice but it has mostly flown off the radar screen. It seems to have been overtaken by events in Iraq and the flap over Kerry’s “joke” about how dumb presidents with multiple Ivy League degrees need more education lest they wind up serving in Iraq as soldiers (or something like that; his humor is too highbrow for me).

It goes without saying, I think, that harassing voters while misleading them into thinking that the calls are coming from one’s opponent is sleazy. It falls well short, say we say, of the Jeffersonian ideal of democracy. I’m not sure, though, that it’s any more despicable than myriad other “dirty tricks” that have been around for years, such as push polling. Or intentionally dishonest negative ads distorting people’s voting records, positions on the issues, relationships with controversial groups, and so forth. Indeed, WaPo’s Dan Balz claims that, “robo calls are very common — one reason is they’re extremely inexpensive — and often are as negative as they are positive.”

One would prefer, certainly, that elections be about an honest comparison of the candidate’s stances on the issues, their experience, and the like. Sadly, close elections seldom seem to be run that way. And most elections are close these days.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2006, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. jeff b says:

    The problem with the Jeffersonian ideal is that most people are not Jefferson. Most people are ordinary, flawed humans and a surprisingly large contingent are amoral sociopaths. The nation as a whole is morally rudderless, with their guiding philosophy being to do anything you think you can get away with. It’s enough to make one want to go back and read Bork’s books (again).

  2. Fersboo says:

    I wonder James, are the lefty sites talking about ACORN and their recent indictments?

  3. jb says:

    One problem is the overreaching on the part of the Kos screamers – referring to these calls as “vote suppressing.” The recordings they post as “evidence” clearly play as negative ads, not any attempt to suppress the vote.

  4. It’s too bad that instead of McCain-Feingold, they couldn’t have decided to slap down these kinds of acts. I suppose technically they are protected speech, but that notion has gone by the wayside anyway.

    I wonder if they could trace them back somehow? I’m sure they are from an area which allows you to block caller ID, but maybe something else?

  5. Christopher says:

    How in the world are these calls “misleading them into thinking that the calls are coming from one’s opponent” when the calls go on to bash the guy?

    What in the world are you talking about, James?

  6. Anderson says:

    How in the world are these calls “misleading them into thinking that the calls are coming from one’s opponent” when the calls go on to bash the guy?

    Reading Is Fundamental. See post:

    “So this seems to be an attempt to cover for that weakness by making those who hang up think the Democratic candidate is basically harassing them with phone calls.”

    See?

  7. Bret says:

    I think it’s clever, regardless of which side it comes from. If your candidate is so weak that he can’t survive a tactic like this then he/she deserves to lose.

  8. Christopher says:

    Mr. Anderson,

    Ohhhh so I see now. You are so smart!

    So…the voters who by the 8th call have only listened to the candidate’s name and then instantly hang up every time get all upset at that candidate…but if only they had listened for 1 more second they would have been able (maybe) to figure out that it was actually the opposition candidate who was doing the calling.
    Ohhhh!

    What a major national problem this is! We need government intervention to stop it! I suppose that the real problem is that democrats are basically idiots. Is that right, Mr. Anderson? By the way, are you a democrat?

  9. Triumph says:

    It goes without saying, I think, that harassing voters while misleading them into thinking that the calls are coming from one’s opponent is sleazy. It falls well short, say we say, of the Jeffersonian ideal of democracy. I’m not sure, though, that it’s any more despicable than myriad other “dirty tricks” that have been around for years, such as push polling.

    It is not a matter of being dispicible, but these calls are clearly ILLEGAL.

    FCC regs state that unsolicited recorded calls must give the indentity of the caller AT THE BEGINNING OF THE MESSAGE. The initiator also must give a telephone number where they can be reached.

    None of the calls at issue have this information.

    These are only coming from Republican supporters.

  10. Anderson says:

    but if only they had listened for 1 more second they would have been able (maybe) to figure out that it was actually the opposition candidate who was doing the calling.

    Um, no. Not “1 more second.” The calls are *designed* to be annoyingly lengthy to anyone who doesn’t want to hear that Joe Democrat believes in selling babies for medical experiments, kicking dogs, etc.

    Cf. this news story quoted by Hilzoy at ObWi:

    My God, the phone calls! Just as I’d begin to drift off to sleep, the phone would ring and it would be YET ANOTHER DAMN COMPUTERIZED MESSAGE ABOUT LOIS MURPHY.

    One, two, three, four times a day it seemed, the phone rang with “robocalls” about the Democratic challenger to incumbent GOP Rep. Jim Gerlach in one of the nastiest races in the country.

    I never listened to one word of it, just slammed the phone down and seethed with resentment. (…)

    But if they annoy voters rather than enlighten them, what’s the point?

    That’s what I asked Lois Murphy’s campaign yesterday.

    The answer was simple:

    “It’s not us!”

    Only three recorded calls have been made on behalf of Murphy’s campaign, including one from Gov. Rendell, which were sponsored by the Democratic State Committee.

    The rest? A “dirty trick” by the Republicans, said communications director Amy Bonitatibus.

    The calls, which begin by offering “important information about Lois Murphy,” are designed to mislead voters into thinking the message is from her.

    Most recipients slam down the phone before finding out otherwise – and then call to complain.

    “We’ve got a ton of complaints, starting about two weeks ago,” Bonitatibus said.

    “Some of our biggest supporters have said, ‘If you call me again, I’m not voting for Lois.’ “”

    See? It works.

    Another point is, IIRC, that such calls are *required* to begin with the name of the responsible entity. Which these don’t. So that mentioning the Dem’s name up front is especially misleading to anyone who knows the law, or has grown used to compliant robocalls.

    And yes, I’m a Democrat. So you can ignore all of the above. Handy, isn’t it?

  11. Christopher says:

    Anderson, why do you have to lie to make a point? Is that the best strategy you liberals have?!?

    Look, republicans would have to be as brain dead as a liberal’s aborted baby to do something so stupid. IF THE CALL ENDS UP INDICATING THAT IT WAS A REPUBLICAN DOING THE CALLING, THEN WHAT GOOD DOES IT DO THEM! IF THE WHOLE STRATEGY IS THAT VOTERS WON’T LISTEN TO THE WHOLE MESSAGE EVEN ONCE THEN WHAT THE HECK KIND OF STRATEGY IS THAT!!! And if the call is to the liberals benefit by repeating the liberal candidates name through repeated calling then…hmmm…maybe it is the DEMOCRAT who is actually making the call! lol

    If republicans win tomorrow you libs will blame it on conjured up charges such as this plus of course voter fraud. If you libs win tomorrow, then, well, you can celebrate with the Taliban and all the terrorists who worked hard for the same thing, in a big party. (but some advice, don’t let them bring the fireworks).

  12. ken says:

    Comment in violation of site policies deleted.

  13. Anderson says:

    Christopher: Anderson, why do you have to lie to make a point?

    I dunno, maybe for the same reason you have to type in all-capital letters? Maybe if you pointed out the “lie” I could give you a better answer?

    IF THE WHOLE STRATEGY IS THAT VOTERS WON’T LISTEN TO THE WHOLE MESSAGE EVEN ONCE THEN WHAT THE HECK KIND OF STRATEGY IS THAT!!!

    I assume that, snark aside, you really *do* have trouble reading. My apologies for slighting your disability. PERHAPS IT WOULD HELP IF I TYPED IN ALL-CAPS? BUT THEN I WOULD LOOK MARGINALLY LITERATE. So I’ll pass on that.

    Ken: I do not think that you want a vote for the Dems to imply an endorsement of everything the Dems do wrong. JJ is relatively unusual in picking up, acknowledging, & criticizing the tactic in question. Lighten up, my friend. (And vote tomorrow!)

  14. Christopher says:

    Anderson,

    And I am sure that you believe Kerry’s “joke” was meant for the President and not the troops. The fact is, you liberals are a joke.

  15. Anderson says:

    And I am sure that you believe Kerry’s “joke” was meant for the President and not the troops.

    Of course not! Kerry deliberately decided to draw attention to himself and enhance his 2008 prospects by mocking the intelligence of American soldiers in Iraq, relying on America’s longstanding hatred of its troops to win support for himself and the party whose nomination he oh-so-obviously seeks.

    The prepared remarks released later by his campaign were hoaxes, plainly produced on a PC rather than on a Mac (as the kerning clearly demonstrates — hat tip to PowerLine!) — everyone knows that Dems use only Macs, b/c they hate capitalism in general and Bill Gates in particular!

    What other explanation is there?

  16. Anderson says:

    Oh, & to confirm the legal point, here’s the NYT:

    Others, like Ms. Hollis, the Villanova professor, say they have filed complaints with the Federal Communications Commission. Its rules on automated calls require that callers state their identity at the beginning of the message. These calls end with a disclaimer that they were paid for by the Republican committee; no identification is made at the start of the message.

    If they’ve misstated the law, I’m sure we’ll hear all about it tomorrow.

    (For that matter, if they *haven’t* misstated the law, we’ll still hear tomorrow that they did.)

  17. Christopher says:

    What are you, Anderson, a lawyer? Figures. But maybe you just play one on the internet.

    And by the way, its not Americans that have longstanding hatred of its troops, its you liberals. Thanks for making my points.

  18. anjin-san says:

    Christopher,

    Democrats have a simple strategy, let Americans review how things have gone under Bush and a GOP congress and then vote. Tomorrow will tell us what they think of the GOP track record.

  19. scottm says:

    Anderson, you may be a Dem, but you’re ok.
    Robocalling is idiotic and sleazy.

  20. Cernig says:

    My thesis in a previous thread – sanity stands in inverse proportion to a propensity for multiple exclamation points, regardless of political bent – still looks strong, I see.

    Regards, C

  21. Cernig says:

    Fersboo,

    One of the largest lefty sites, Counterpunch, yesterday ran a lengthy article on ACORN’s officially welcoming an FBI investigation of alleged staff wrongdoings, since ACORN are determined any wrongdoers within their organization should face justice. Does that help?

    Regards, C

  22. cian says:

    Calling all OTB readers! We need lullabies, fast! Chirstopher missed his nap-time!

  23. Anderson says:

    Why yes, Christopher, I *am* a lawyer. *And* a Democrat. Eeek!

    The WaPo provides the Repub rebuttal on the legal issue:

    Democrats also cited Federal Communications Commission guidelines saying the originators of automated calls must identify themselves at the beginning of each call. Republican Party lawyers, however, said the requirement does not apply to political nonprofit organizations. They rebuffed a “cease and desist” letter sent yesterday by the DCCC.

    If true, the reg needs to be changed, obviously. Being an actual lawyer, I could look this up, but I have fond hopes of actually billing someone for my time today ….

    My thesis in a previous thread – sanity stands in inverse proportion to a propensity for multiple exclamation points, regardless of political bent – still looks strong, I see.

    So right!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  24. Cernig says:

    LOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!