A close look at Republican message-testing in key Iowa House races

Republicans are testing potentially damaging messages about Iowa House Democratic candidates, along with statements that might increase support for GOP candidates in battleground legislative districts. After listening to several recordings of these telephone polls and hearing accounts from other respondents, I have three big takeaways:

• Republicans are seeking ways to insulate themselves from voter anger over inadequate education funding and the Branstad administration’s botched Medicaid privatization;
• The time-honored GOP strategy of distorting obscure legislative votes is alive and well;
• The Iowa Democratic Party’s platform plank on legalizing all drugs may be used against candidates across the state.

Read on for much more about these surveys.

Message-testing vs. Push-polling

Several of my sources were upset to receive what they described as a “push-poll” against their area’s Democratic House candidate. I’m grateful they resisted the impulse to hang up the phone. The best way to combat these tactics is to stay on the line and take detailed notes, or ideally record the survey. One source posted the audio on Facebook as well as alerting her local candidate and other Democrats.

The Republican-backed surveys currently in the field are not push-polls. They were designed to try out talking points. Kathy Frankovic of CBS News explained the difference:

A push poll is political telemarketing masquerading as a poll. No one is really collecting information. No one will analyze the data. A push poll is very short, even too short. (It has to be very short to reach tens of thousands of potential voters, one by one). It does not include any demographic questions. And, of course, a push poll will contain negative information — sometimes truthful, sometimes not — about an opponent.

Push polls mislead the public, and not just about an opponent. They mislead the public about polls: Callers claim they are conducting a poll when all they are doing is spreading negative information.

[…] Not all questions that seem negative are part of push polls. Candidate organizations sometimes conduct polls with questions that contain negative information about opposing candidates. These polls, which are not push polls, are conducted for the same reasons market and advertising researchers do their work: to see what kinds of themes and packages move the public.

[…] These real polls are full-length, covering more topics than just some negative questions about an opponent. They include demographic questions that allow researchers to categorize respondents.

As pollster Mark Blumenthal once put it, “Virtually all campaigns ask message testing questions on their benchmark surveys. […] Some pollsters will repeat their vote preference question after testing messages, because they want to see whether their message will change opinion and, if so, with what voters.”

The ongoing calls in competitive Iowa House districts felt like push-polls to respondents, because the assertions about Democrats were universally negative and sometimes false. But these are real surveys. The data collected will drive GOP decisions on what messages to include in direct mail and advertising.

As November 8 approaches, some of the lines now being tested may turn up in push-polls delivered via robocall to tens of thousands of voters. Republicans have played that game to influence statehouse races before.

Now let’s look more closely at the current polls. All of them followed the same general format, only altering the wording of statements about local House candidates.

The lead-in

The pitch began with a caller who did not ask for a member of the household by name: “I’m calling on behalf of a national research firm. We’re doing a short survey about issues in Iowa, and I was wondering if I could get your opinions tonight.” Some of my sources asked who was paying for the survey, but were not able to obtain that information.

The live interviewer was the first clue that these are real polls. Push-polls are automated so as to reach the largest possible audience at the lowest cost.

The baseline questions near the beginning of each call were another sign that a real poll was in progress. Are you speaking on a cell phone or landline? Are you registered to vote at this address? How likely are you to vote in the November election? In what year were you born?

Next, a set of questions often used by pollsters:

Do you think things in Iowa are moving in the right direction, or are they off on the wrong track?

Do you approve or disapprove of the job Terry Branstad is doing as governor?

Do you approve or disapprove of the job Iowa state legislators are doing in Des Moines?

If the election for Iowa House were held today, would you vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate? (At this point, the caller had not named any local candidates, so were measuring support for a “generic” Democrat or Republican.)

Next, the caller read a list of names and asked respondents to say if they had heard of the person, and if so, was their opinion very favorable, favorable, unfavorable, or very unfavorable.

Terry Branstad

Donald Trump

Hillary Clinton

[name of Democratic candidate for Iowa House seat]

Barack Obama

[name of Republican candidate for Iowa House seat]

Has [Iowa House incumbent] done the job well enough to deserve re-election, or is it time to give a new person a chance?

Which of these issues are most important to you? The caller read a list and asked respondents to name two among the following options:

• transportation/roads
• education
• economy/jobs
• health care
• taxes
• moral values
• energy/gas prices
• illegal immigration
• government spending and debt

The next question mentioned that Iowa had changed the $5 billion Medicaid program from a government-managed system to one run by private companies. Based on what you have heard about this, do you support or oppose the state decision to change the management of Medicaid?

How interested are you in the November election? (1 to 10 scale)

If the presidential election were held today, would you support the Democrat Hillary Clinton, Republican Donald Trump, Libertarian Gary Johnson, the Green candidate Jill Stein, or Evan McMullin, independent?

Next, a ballot test on the U.S. Senate race: Democrat Patty Judge, Republican Chuck Grassley, Libertarian Charles Aldrich, or independent Michael Luick-Thrams?

U.S. House ballot test: Democratic and Republican candidates for Congress were named.

Iowa House ballot test: named Democratic and Republican candidates. If the respondent had a preference, the caller followed up by asking whether the voter would probably or definitely support that candidate.

At this point the scripts diverged, depending on the district where the voter lived.

Scripts opposing Democratic incumbents and supporting Republican challengers

Republicans are polling in a number of Iowa House seats now held by Democrats. Targeted incumbents include State Representatives Scott Ourth (House district 26), John Forbes (House district 40), Todd Prichard (House district 52), and Patti Ruff (House district 56). Probably polls are going on in other districts as well. Each survey presented respondents with five negative statements about the incumbent. After each statement, the caller asked, does this information make you much more likely, somewhat more likely, somewhat less likely, or much less likely to vote for that person, or does it make no difference?

From what I can gather, several of the statements below were used in every survey. Others were used only against some incumbents. The statements were not always presented in this order:

• Incumbent voted to add over $2 billion to state budget over last four years, which could result in a $778 tax increase for Iowans. (seems to have been asked in every district)
• voted to allow secret health insurance rate increases under Obamacare without notifying Iowans until they are billed (seems to have been asked in every district)
• voted against assistance for children who may have been abuse victims or witnesses to a violent crime
• voted to keep secret reasons state employees are disciplined or fired; even in cases of offenses such as child abuse, those people may be eligible to be re-hired
• voted against a plan to verify Medicaid eligibility to help prevent fraud, which could save millions of dollars
• voted against local control for school districts, which would give schools the ability to provide innovative solutions
• voted against keeping student information private (not clear whether that statement referred to students in K-12 schools or higher education)
• voted against funding for water quality programs

Side note: I don’t know the context for most of these statements. Like Republican claims about “heated sidewalks” in elections past, I suspect some stem from votes on little-known amendments and don’t mean what the call script implies.

If a representative voted against a House Medicaid oversight bill because it was weaker than the approach Iowa Senate Democrats favored, that might be construed as a vote against a plan to prevent Medicaid fraud.

Or Democrats may have voted against a GOP school funding bill because they believed it shortchanged education, and now that’s presented as a vote against local control. The House Republican proposal to fund water quality programs would have taken infrastructure money away from other projects. Most House Democrats support higher levels of spending on water quality than do their GOP counterparts.

The so-called vote “to keep secret reasons state employees are disciplined or fired” may relate to competing Democratic and Republican government reform proposals after a scandal related to Branstad administration personnel policies.

As for the extra $2 billion in state spending, Republicans may have arrived at that figure by adding all of the budget bills lawmakers had voted for over a long period of time. But it would be impossible for Democratic legislators to add $2 billion to the state budget, because Iowa law limits spending from the general fund to 99 percent of projected revenues for the next fiscal year.

Back to the poll: the script included favorable information about each Republican challenger, often mentioning the person’s hometown, education, career choices, and volunteer activities, as well as spouse and children. The caller read a few broad statements about the candidate’s philosophy, such as using more business practices in state government, empowering small businesses, reducing regulations, making sure taxpayer money isn’t wasted, trying to end politics as usual, making government smaller and smarter, making schools work better.

The caller didn’t ask respondents to rate each complimentary statement about the Republican candidate. After reading the whole paragraph, the caller asked, “Having heard more about [challenger], what do you find most appealing?”

Then the survey repeated the ballot test on the Iowa House race, this time naming both the Democratic incumbent and the GOP challenger. Republicans are trying to learn which messages may move support away from the Democrat.

The last set of questions were typical for any political poll: race/ethnicity; marital status; are you currently registered to vote as a Democrat, Republican, or something else; if Democrat or Republican, do you consider yourself a strong or not-so-strong Democrat or Republican; do you consider yourself liberal, moderate, or conservative on most issues?

The caller closed out the survey by asking for the respondent’s name.

Calls supporting Republican incumbents against Democratic challengers

In districts with a Republican incumbent, respondents heard a series of positive statements about the lawmakers. After each statement, the caller asked if the statement would make you very/somewhat more likely or less likely to vote for him, or would it make no difference. Multiple sources received these calls in House district 38 (Kevin Koester) and House district 43 (Majority Leader Chris Hagenow). I assume polling is happening in other GOP-held districts too, but I haven’t received accounts of the messages tested there.

The statements tested about Koester went something like this:

• He has spent 30 years educating Iowa’s youth.
• He has been named citizen of the year by the Iowa Health Care Association and other organizations
• He voted for the toughest Medicaid oversight legislation in the country to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse
• He has served on many local nonprofit boards including the Ankeny chamber and United way

The poll in House district 43, where I live, also said Hagenow voted for tough Medicaid oversight legislation. I would guess that line is being tested in every vulnerable GOP incumbent’s district. Candidates and volunteers from all over the state have been telling me voters on the doorstep frequently bring up problems related to Medicaid managed care. I heard anecdotes from several voters last weekend while I was canvassing on behalf of Hagenow’s challenger, Jennifer Konfrst.

Democrats need to be prepared to refute claims that House Republicans voted for adequate oversight of how three private insurance companies will manage health care for more than half a million Iowans. The truth is that House leaders refused to bring the Senate Medicaid oversight bill up for a vote in the lower chamber. The final version of this year’s health and human services budget bill included some oversight provisions, but statehouse Democrats had pushed for more ombudsmen and stronger accountability measures.

Other messages reportedly tested about Hagenow:

• He has protected education funding from severe cuts
• He is the House majority leader
• He supports medical marijuana but is against legalizing all drugs

Anyone who has followed the school funding debates of the past six years can only laugh at the idea of House Republicans protecting education budgets. Every legislative session, Senate Democrats have fought for months to get Republicans to agree to budget increases that don’t even keep up with rising costs for school districts. Hagenow served on the Appropriations Committee in 2011 and 2012 and has been in leadership since 2013 (three years as majority whip and one as majority leader).

Republicans often boast that total spending on education has increased in recent years. But it’s not accurate to say Hagenow or any of his colleagues protected schools from funding cuts. In July 2015, Governor Terry Branstad item-vetoed tens of millions of dollars earmarked for education, including about $56 million for K-12 schools. That left every school district in the state scrambling to fill a hole in the budget after the new fiscal year had begun. Democrats wanted to override the governor’s veto, but House leaders refused to go along.

I’m intrigued that Republicans are trying to find out whether Hagenow should play up his leadership position. Traditionally, political analysts have believed incumbents in positions of power are harder to beat than back-benchers. But Hagenow doesn’t have a record of delivering state funding for important local projects in Windsor Heights, Clive, and West Des Moines. Moreover, as the number two House Republican after Speaker Linda Upmeyer, Hagenow doesn’t have the plausible deniability other lawmakers can use: gee, I really support your bill and would definitely vote for it, but leadership hasn’t brought it up.

On the contrary: Hagenow greatly influences which bills come out of committee and is directly responsible for which bills receive votes on the House floor. When speaking to voters in House district 43, I often mention that Hagenow’s in a position to move or bury legislation. For instance, one no-party voter I canvassed last weekend is an avid bicyclist and said bike safety is one of her big issues. As it happens, the Iowa Senate passed one of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition’s top legislative priorities with strong bipartisan support. But House leaders–that is, Hagenow–let the bill die. The voter knows that now.

For Republicans to present Hagenow as a supporter of medical marijuana is outrageous. He did vote for the cannabis oil bill lawmakers passed at the end of the 2014 session. But that law has proven too limited and unworkable. Iowans who could benefit from medical cannabis have been lobbying for a much broader state law, like the bill Senate Democrats passed in 2015. House Republican leaders repeatedly thwarted their efforts, making sure the Senate bill was rewritten and scaled back before it could be voted on in a House committee.

Even that watered-down bill failed to receive a vote on the House floor. Instead, Republicans called up a phony alternative, so certain members (including Koester and Hagenow) could vote for it and claim to be on the side of nearly 80 percent of Iowans who support legalizing medical marijuana. The last-minute substitute bill would have done nothing to provide access to cannabis derivatives in Iowa.

The call script also included positive information about the Republican incumbent’s family background. For instance, Hagenow is a sixth-generation Iowan who grew up in Cedar Falls and has a wife and kids.

Statements tested about Democratic challengers Heather Matson (House district 38) and Konfrst were uniformly negative, and after each line, the caller asked if that information would make you somewhat or much more or less likely to support the candidate, or would it make no difference. Some points appear to be used in every poll about a Democratic non-incumbent:

• strongly supports Obamacare, which cuts billions from seniors’ Medicare funding, forced many Iowans to buy coverage they do not want or else pay a stiff penalty, resulted in preferred policies being cancelled for many Iowans and dramatically increased health insurance premiums
• supports a plan to hike government spending and take Iowa back to the days when we were spending more money than the government takes in
• belongs to political party with a platform that calls for legalizing all drugs, making heroin, cocaine and crystal meth legal for purchase and consumption
• some sources recalled a line about public funding for abortions

Republican attacks about Obamacare, out-of-control spending, and public funding for abortion are standard operating procedure in Iowa legislative campaigns.

From the moment the Iowa Democratic Party’s state convention delegates (the ones still hanging in there close to midnight) approved a drug legalization plank, everyone could see GOP campaign ads about heroin and meth on the horizon. I am not aware of any Democrat running for office this year who agrees with that platform language. Konfrst provided this comment: “While I’m not surprised the negative attacks are starting already – that’s politics as usual – I am surprised Leader Hagenow is saying things about me that aren’t true. While I strongly support legalizing medical cannabis for chronic conditions like epilepsy, MS, and cancer, I do not support legalizing all drugs. I’ve seen the horrible impact that drug addiction has on people’s lives, on families, and on our community. I would not support legalizing the drugs that cause that addiction.”

A few negative statements about Democratic challengers were specific to the candidate. For instance:

• Konfrst allegedly said she can’t understand why people would want smaller government
• Konfrst leads a radical pro-abortion group at Drake University (where she teaches)
• Matson worked for Planned Parenthood
• Matson supports Hillary Clinton for president
• Matson was a lobbyist for special interests (the script was apparently not specific about which interest groups)

After respondents heard the lists of positive and negative statements, the script repeated the ballot test between the two Iowa House candidates before moving to the final set of demographic questions.

Calls supporting Republicans and opposing Democrats in open seats

Quite a few House Republicans opted to retire this year, giving Democrats at least half a dozen pickup opportunities in open seats. I was able to confirm this week that versions of this message-testing poll are reaching voters in House district 51 (Tim Hejhal vs. Jane Bloomingdale) and district 58 (Jessica Kean vs. Andy McKean). It’s a safe bet similar calls are happening elsewhere, such as district 55 (Pat Ritter vs. Michael Bergan), district 95 (Richard Whitehead vs. Louis Zumbach), and district 88 (Ryan Drew vs. David Kerr).

As in districts with Democratic incumbents, the caller read a series of statements about the Democratic candidate, asking in each case whether the information made the respondent more or less likely to vote for that candidate. For the Republican candidate, the caller read a whole paragraph before asking an open-ended question.

In House district 51, the script described Bloomingdale as a lifelong resident of Northwood, former mayor, teacher and coach, who owned and operated a business. The caller mentioned her long marriage and children. She understands challenging facing small communities and brings experience and leadership on issues like government spending and taxes. These are qualities we need in the legislature. Having heard all that, what aspects about Jane Bloomingdale do you find most appealing?

The tested statements about Hejhal tracked closely with lines used against Democratic challengers:

• his political party approved a platform calling for legalizing all drugs, making heroin, cocaine and crystal meth legal for purchase and consumption;
• strongly supports Obamacare, which cuts billions from seniors’ Medicare funding, forced many Iowans to buy coverage they do not want or else pay a stiff penalty, resulted in preferred policies being cancelled for many Iowans and dramatically increased health insurance premiums
• supports a plan to hike government spending and take Iowa back to the days when we were spending more money than the government takes in
• supports a plan to overturn Iowa’s right to work law and force non-union workers to pay union dues that fund unions’ political activity
• his party has consistently supported allowing on-demand abortions paid from taxpayer dollars

After the list of statements, respondents answered the Iowa House ballot test again, then the final set of demographic questions.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread. I encourage readers who have received polling calls in these or other Iowa legislative districts to contact me with further information; my e-mail address is near the lower right corner of this page. A forthcoming post will discuss Republican message-testing calls in some of the critical Iowa Senate districts.

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  • I got that poll

    In Kean’s District. Wish I had a recording of it. The caller said that the polling firm was SSI (Survey Sampling International, I believe).