Push polling is one of the dirtier, yet mostly legal, tricks in a political operative's bag of last-minute campaign tools; robo-calling software makes it dirt cheap to place millions of calls to a single swing district. And the game is changing: Reports after November's election suggested that some races were tipped to Republicans after voters endured a slew of "false-flag" calls, which take the art of voter suppression to a new level. With the 2008 race approaching, things are only going to get nastier. Meet one of the kings of the political robo-call.
Name: Gabriel Joseph III, president of FreeEats.
Odds that you might hear from him: FreeEats can make up to 3.5 million phone calls a day. "We generally talk to more people than watch television, listen to the radio, or read the newspaper combined," says Joseph.
Who’s calling: FreeEats is also known as Advantage Research, ccAdvertising, Data Research, Election Research, fec Research, fecads, Political Research, and Public Research. It has been accused of disguising or "spoofing" its caller IDs; Joseph has reportedly said his company has "thousands" of aliases.
Who’s really calling: Joseph’s clients have included Tom DeLay, the National Rifle Association, Americans for Tax Reform, the Minutemen, the Family Research Council, and the Economic Freedom Fund, a new group bankrolled by Bob Perry, the Texas builder who funded Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
The m.o.: When you pick up the phone, a recorded voice announces it is conducting a short "political survey" before asking a series of loaded questions. For example, "Congressman Baron Hill voted to allow the sale of a broad range of violent and sexually explicit materials to minors. Does knowing this make you less likely to vote for Baron Hill?"
Block the vote: In a 2003 email to a GOP honcho, Joseph explained how recordings can "deliver a voter suppression message." In one such technique (not linked to FreeEats), the false-flag call, a robo-call begins, "I’m calling with information about candidate X." Those who hang up quickly will think the call came from X’s campaign, since the real source (often the National Republican Congressional Committee) isn’t revealed until the end, which is a violation of federal regulations. The robo-caller then redials several times, leaving recipients annoyed at candidate X.
Called out: FreeEats has been fined for breaking anti-robo-calling laws in North Dakota, and a federal judge banned it from phoning Indiana voters under similar statutes.
Parting shot: Joseph warns Mother Jones: "If someone writes something that I don’t like, I can make their life...I can make them understand a few things if I choose."