Living in Society

Are Pollsters Also Trolls?

Newport Precinct Polling Place, Nov. 3, 2010.

These days it is a debate whether to answer the telephone when an unknown number rings. Monday I picked up a phone call from the 641 area code, which runs from Ottumwa to Mason City. It was a pollster administering poll number 19985 IAHD091. How do I know that code? The text message the firm sent me 15 minutes after I completed the telephone interview led to a Survey Monkey poll with that number as the header. It was the Republicans calling about House District 91.

I’m still curious about local politics, and the kind of questions asked during a telephone poll can be revealing of the funder’s tactics. I felt like a miner striking pay dirt during the 1849 California Gold Rush.

It is common practice for Iowa House Republicans to poll a number of districts in late summer of an election year, usually at least 10-15 districts, according to a person familiar with the practice. House District 91 is an open seat after redistricting and leans Republican. Iowa Republicans follow a well-developed and targeted playbook to maintain their majority in the state house. They don’t want to leave anything to chance when it comes to picking up an open seat, so putting a poll in the field is an inexpensive investment.

The telephone survey seemed different from the online survey sent via text message, although they were likely the same questions asked differently. The main give-away that the poll was from the Republicans was the issue list I had to use to decide which would be most important in deciding my vote for state government: the Second Amendment and gun rights; border security; public school education; pro-life and family values; inflation and the cost of living; gun control measures; crime and public safety; women’s reproductive rights; government spending; and healthcare. Some of these are written in dog-whistle language understood without an interpreter only by Republicans who speak it. I picked public school education because of these so-called issues it is the one that garners the largest part of the state budget.

The survey began by asking how I would vote (probably in-person at the polls on election day), whether Iowa was on the right or wrong track (mostly the wrong track), and if I would vote Republican or Democratic for Congress (definitely Democratic), the pollster name-checked, in this order, Elle Wyant (they pronounced Elle with two syllables rather than the normal single one), Joe Biden, Brad Sherman and Kim Reynolds.

I strongly support Deidre DeJear for governor and Elle Wyant for state representative. I voted for Joe Biden in 2020 rather than that other guy, I told the pollster. I thought they snickered after saying I think of myself as independent. We got back on track when I characterized my views toward politics and government as somewhat liberal.

Whoever this person with a strong non-Midwestern accent was, they were likely doing a job for which they needed the compensation. I doubt they were represented by a union. I’m more curious about how they got my name and phone number, although the Republican voter tracking software is legendary for aggregating information from multiple sources.

My takeaways? The pollster was not trolling me. Republicans have a well-oiled machine that will tell them where their problems lie in winning House District 91. They will adjust their plan accordingly after reviewing the poll results. They are a serious, formidable opponent, even if their candidate is a fringe preacher in a non-denominational Christian church who puts his campaign barn sign on the Interstate next to those supporting the 2020 Republican candidate for president. Yes, one is still there.

When I was campaign manager for a Democratic house candidate in 2012, the state party did a district poll. The call I got after they read it was something like, “spend all your time in the non-Johnson County parts of the district.” It wasn’t specific guidance nor was it particularly helpful as while we abandoned liberal parts of the district, the Republican made inroads there. He won enough votes to put him over the top during the general election.

Polls are another piece of information about the competitive environment in a house race. I welcomed the chance to participate for the information it gave me. Will they count my results twice, since I answered via telephone and via Survey Monkey? Probably not. Can Elle Wyant win as state representative? I hope so.

There are 84 days until the polls close on election day.