Dec 1 2006

GOP ‘Robocall’ Deception

Missing coverage of the Republican Party’s November Surprise

Toward the end of the recent midterm elections, voters in closely contested districts across the country reported getting automated calls that began, “Hi, I’m calling with information about [name of Democratic candidate].” If they listened to the rest of the message, they heard a litany of negative claims about the candidate. If they hung up—as many voters did, overwhelmed by so-called robocalls this election season—they were left with the impression that the call came from the Democrat’s campaign. And unless they listened to the entire call, the machine called them back again and again, giving them the impression that the Democrat’s campaign was harassing them (Talking Points Memo, 11/6/06).

Only at the very end of the calls—contrary to federal regulations (AP, 11/1/06)—did they reveal that they were organized and paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which coordinated the GOP’s unsuccessful campaign to keep control of the House of Representatives. The NRCC’s head of opposition research is Terry Nelson, who in 2002 was deputy chief of staff of the Republican National Committee. At that time, Nelson was the supervisor of Jim Tobin, the RNC’s New England political director, who was convicted of illegally jamming Democratic phone banks in New Hampshire (AlterNet, 11/6/06).

Anecdotal evidence suggested that the NRCC’s misleading calls were sometimes effective. The American Prospect’s blog Tapped (11/7/06) cited former Prospect staffer Alec Oveis, who was volunteering for Democratic challenger Chris Murphy in Connecticut, as saying

that voter fury over robocalls is amazing and palpable at the polling site he’s near. Several people have gone out of their way to tell him and other Murphy people that they’re voting for Republican incumbent Nancy Johnson strictly out of anger at the harassing phone calls they’ve been receiving from the Murphy campaign. Alec and others’ explanations that those calls are actually paid for by Republicans have generally been falling on deaf ears. (They are, after all, holding Murphy signs while offering these explanations.)

The robocalls did not, in the end, provide much help for Johnson, who lost the election by a wide margin (a defeat attributed, fittingly enough, to disgust with her negative advertising—(Hartford Courant, 11/16/06). But it’s clear that the Republicans hoped that misdirected anger would mean votes for their candidates, or at least keep some voters at home.

Last-minute dirty tricks like these were intended to fly under the media’s radar, affecting election results before journalists could inform the public about what was going on. And mainstream media tend to throw up their hands about such tactics: Mark Halperin, political director for ABC News, declared shortly before the vote (Slate, 10/30/06) that “tracking . . . those robocalls that come at the very end is nearly impossible.”

But the fact is, reporters were alerted to these deceptive calls before Election Day, and some prominent outlets did cover the story—just not prominently or early enough to alert many voters. The New York Times ran an Election Day story on page A18, under the bland headline “Repeat Calls Spur a Debate Over Tactics.” The Washington Post had a somewhat more critical story, but also ran it on November 7 buried on A8.

CNN mentioned the scandal on the Situation Room (11/6/06), but seemed to have nothing about it on its website. CNN correspondent Ali Velshi downplayed the story on Election Day (11/7/06), saying that “we have had reports from a number of states about robocalling. Now, that’s not an election problem. That’s just calls that the political parties are making to people, automated phone calls.”

When the facts suggest an official arm of the party in power is attempting to undermine the democratic process, it ought to be a major story. If media do not aggressively expose electoral deception in real time, with enough attention to ensure that most voters are not fooled, then campaigns have every incentive to engage in such dirty tricks. They can count on the media’s fear of appearing partisan during an election season—and their short memories after the campaign is over—and rest assured that the whistle will never be blown on them loud or long enough to matter.