Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign is under fire in Iowa for sending out mailers that the Iowa secretary of state has denounced as deceptive. Labeled as “official public records,” the direct-mail piece warn Iowans of a “VOTER VIOLATION.” It reads:
You are receiving this election notice because of low expected voter turnout in your area. Your individual voting history as well as your neighbors’ are public record. Their scores are published below, and many of them will see your score as well. CAUCUS ON MONDAY TO IMPROVE YOUR SCORE and please encourage your neighbors to caucus as well. A follow-up notice may be issued following Monday’s caucuses.
This direct-mail strategy is inspired by social science that shows that a citizen is more likely to vote if he knows his neighbors will be told whether he went to the polls. But this Cruz scheme has come under fire because, as Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said in a statement responding to these mailings, “There is no such thing as an election violation related to frequency of voting.” That is, the Cruz campaign was promoting a lie to scare likely Cruz voters in order to get them to the caucuses on Monday night.
But something else was amiss about the mailing: the scores. The mailings ranked the recipients and their neighbors with a percentage based on their voting records and awarded each voter a letter grade of A to F letter. But these scores don’t appear to be accurate—which means that the Cruz camp may not only be misleading voters about Iowa election law, but spreading false information to Iowans about their neighbors’ purported voting histories.
The Cruz campaign did not immediately respond to a question about how it came up with each voters’ score on the mailers.
David Peterson of Ames, Iowa, received a version of this mailer on Friday. It gave him and six of his neighbors the same score: 55 percent, or an F. Peterson, who happens to be a political science professor at Iowa State University, thought the numbers looked fishy. And he ought to know. He runs a journal called Political Behavior and is well-versed on the social science underlying the strategy behind this campaign ploy.
“I’ve seen the social science work that shows that these kinds of mailers can mobilize voters,” Peterson tells Mother Jones. But the numbers were off. Since moving to Iowa in 2009, Peterson says, he has voted in five of the six primary and general elections that have occurred. Trying to derive a score of 55 percent—and an F— from that record, he says, “the math simply doesn’t work.”
Peterson also saw that his six neighbors listed on the mailer received F grades. “I know my neighbors, and this is a mix of people,” he says. “This includes an older couple who have a long history of voting and a younger couple, probably, who aren’t as regular voters.” But everyone has the same score. (Peterson shared his copy of the mailer with Mother Jones but covered the names of his neighbors so as not to involve them in the story without their permission.)
Different versions of the mailers, circulated on Twitter, all appear similar. One gives all voters on the mailer an F. Another gives two neighbors Fs, one a C, and two Ds.
“I assumed that it would have my real score and that it would be sort of an accurate representation,” says Peterson. To generate percentages and grades like the mailer does, the Cruz campaign would have simply had to examine Iowa’s voter files and define a window of time to calculate the score. But, Peterson says, he realized “there’s no mathematical way” an accurate examination would have yielded the scores he saw.
And why was Peterson, a registered Democrat, sent this mailer? He has a hunch. A collector of campaign buttons, he purchased some from Cruz’s website, which probably placed him on the campaign’s mailing list. Given that he has not voted in any Republican primaries in Iowa, the campaign might have targeted him as the sort of supporter who needed a bit of a kick to make it to his local caucus.
On Saturday evening, Cruz stood by the mailers, even after they were condemned by the secretary of state. “I will apologize to no one for using every tool we can to encourage Iowa voters to come out and vote,” Cruz told reporters in Sioux City, Iowa.