How Dirty Tricks Work

Political campaigns have overt and covert operations. Some of the hidden activity is legitimate, including "oppo research" done to find inconsistencies in a rival candidate's record. But other activities are dishonest, even potentially illegal. Those who carry out the dirty tricks—push-polls, anonymous fliers, bogus letters meant to incite the recipient against a particular candidate—sometimes go to great lengths to remain anonymous. But Allen Raymond eventually got exposed. He served in several legitimate jobs in the Republican Party, including chief of staff to the co-chair of the Republican National Committee, before he set up his own firm with help from elite Republican investors. It was while heading that outfit, GOP Marketplace, that Raymond got involved in dubious activities and crossed the line. He served three months in prison in 2006 for participating in a scheme to jam Democratic Party phone banks on Election Day in New Hampshire in 2002. In his new book, "How to Rig an Election: Confessions of a Republican Operative," Raymond explains how he got into the sleazy side of the business and how it works. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jeffrey Bartholet about his misdeeds and his views on the tricks being used in the current presidential campaign. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: In a nutshell, can you explain what you did that put you in prison?
Allen Raymond:
This is what is known as the New Hampshire phone-jamming scandal. Essentially, it was to disrupt the phone lines of the Democratic Party's Election Day phone banks in Manchester, N.H.

You did this on behalf of whom?
The client was the New Hampshire Republican State Committee. But I was originally contacted to do it by the New England regional political director of the Republican National Committee. [The executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party, Charles McGee, pleaded guilty to his involvement and served seven months in jail. The New England regional political director, James Tobin, has won a retrial after a successful appeal of his conviction.] This was November 2002. The top of the ballot was [Democrat Jeanne] Shaheen vs. [Republican John] Sununu for the U.S. Senate.

The idea was to stop the Democrats' get-out-the vote efforts?
Yeah, the original intent that was described to me was to disrupt lines of communication. The intent was to tie up the phone lines [at the phone banks] so no calls could go in or out. They were manned by Democratic state party staff and volunteers.

Did your actions affect the outcome?
It's hard to say, because [the operation] was shut down very quickly. It only went on for an hour or an hour and a half.

And it was shut down because somebody within the Republican leadership in New Hampshire suddenly realized this was illegal?
Well, what happened was that on Election Day I got a panicked phone call from the executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party, desperate to find me and shut down the operation. The reason he gave was that it was illegal and needed to stop.

Now it's six years later and we're about to witness an important primary in New Hampshire, and there are ongoing investigations about apparently illegal push-polling [which seems to have targeted Mitt Romney] that has gone on in this primary. Do you know anything about that?
Well, some things never change. I don't have direct knowledge about that, because I'm not involved in politics. But what I can tell you from just reading about it is that it's a fairly sophisticated program the attorney general in New Hampshire is investigating. It demands money to do that type of program.

Now, the New Hampshire AG has determined which firms are behind this push-polling, one in Utah and another in Portland, Ore. What do you make of that?
The most important thing to make of that is if they don't appear in the FEC reports somewhere for some campaign, then it's been purposely concealed. So whoever did it knew enough to know that they didn't want to be linked to it. So in order to pay for it, they needed to structure that transaction in a way so that information did not appear on the Federal Election Commission disclosure reports. So while I don't know who did it, the fact that they took such great strides to conceal it says a great deal.

Your firm did a fair amount of push-polling. For the layman out there who doesn't understand the practice, can you explain how push-polls differ from legitimate surveys?
Yeah, a survey is a very legitimate thing. Candidates do it to understand what the salient messages are and what issues voters are predisposed to respond to. They collect data, the data is processed, and the results get filtered into the campaign. So those are valid. A push-poll is designed to be disguised as a legitimate survey, but it's not that. Its mission or intent is really to push a message under the guise of legitimate data collection. That's why it's a dirty trick, because you're not really very interested in the data you collect. You may generate data, but the intent really is to drive home a message in the guise of something else.

Can you give an example?
Say you were targeting evangelical voters in Iowa. You might say, "Would you be more or less likely to vote for a candidate whose faith states that the devil and Jesus are brothers [trying to cast Mormonism in a bad light and tarnishing Romney in the process]?" You know how the voter is going to respond. They are going to have a negative response to that question. You are linking the question to a certain candidate, aiming to leave a certain impression—generally a negative impression.

One of the tricks you used in push-polling was to use callers who had particular accents. Can you explain that?
Sure. Say you're calling a Democratic household, perhaps a union household. And this isn't necessarily a push-poll. You're just calling them with a [fake] advocacy message. You've got a script, say, about NAFTA, and you're describing a candidate's position about NAFTA. But maybe you do it with an accented voice. In this case, maybe a Hispanic or Latin accent would be effective. What you're doing is not only telling that household what a certain candidate's position is on a certain issue, when you know that household is predisposed to be opposed to the candidate because of that position. You're also adding in this additional layer of bringing this message into the household with an accent. Essentially, you're tapping into what you assume is latent bigotry.

So, for instance, you might use a Hispanic voice in targeting households you knew had strong opinions about illegal immigration. Then you'd have a Hispanic voice call up on behalf of a particular party, talking about the importance of legalizing immigrants, knowing that would be a turnoff for whoever was in that household?
Yes. Immigration is a very good example. Rather than the phones, let's talk about the mail. You might mail an immigration piece—a piece that says [in the name of a Democrat], "I'm the candidate for tougher immigration laws," with a picture of someone climbing through the border fence. Then you might send that piece of mail to a household with a Puerto Rican surname. The purpose of that is to incite that household that might otherwise vote Democratic on that issue.

At one point you used the voice of a quote-unquote "scary black man." Can you explain that?
Again, you assume that certain households are predisposed on issues. So that call might go into a white Democratic home. In this case it would be a recorded call. The point there would be to try to tap into potentially latent bigotry, to force that household to make a particular decision on its vote. You're tapping into triggers. When I was working, the main thing was to win, not to be moral.

How much do these calls cost, whether they're push-polls or just fake advocacy calls?
It all depends. If it's an automated call, they're fairly inexpensive: a couple of cents—five or six cents at the most. They used to be more expensive, but the cost has come down a lot. A live phone call? It depends on length and script and stuff like that. Maybe your average is 65 to 75 cents. Maybe a little bit more. And that's for a live caller delivering a brief message. If you're talking about 20 questions, that is much more expensive.

You also conducted something you might call the "Super Bowl scheme." Can you explain that?
I had been hired by a campaign in New Jersey to do a call during a Republican primary. It's kind of complex, but there were three candidates: two were from the southern region of the state; one was from the northern region. The idea of the call was to describe the positions on abortion of the two [southern] candidates. But the real intent of the call—because it was done right in the middle of the Super Bowl—was to deliver a message at a time when most people were consumed with the football game.

And the idea was to make people angry at the two candidates for disrupting their game?
It was targeted at active Republicans. One of the things it was doing, which you do in campaigns, was using a candidate's position on whatever issue to drive votes one way or another. So it was designed to inform and then push pro-choice voters one way and pro-life voters the other.

You were trying to split the vote of the two southern candidates?
And then do it at a time when the recipients of the call would throw up their hands and say, "You know what, I'm voting for the guy from the north!"

The Green Party has been used as a tool. Can you explain how you used the Green Party?
Yeah. And you saw this as well in 2006 in Pennsylvania in the Senate race, where the Green Party candidate got backing from Republican donors. That speaks for itself. If you can siphon votes off from a Democratic opponent, that certainly helps you on Election Day.

What did your firm do to use the Green Party?
We just made calls encouraging Democrats to vote for the Green Party candidate.

What are some of the other dirty tricks that are used?
This cycle you've seen quite a few. You see Barack Obama's middle name used prominently.

Yes. And obviously the intent of that is to inflame … You've seen recently phone calls to ministers in Iowa threatening their tax-exempt status if they actively campaign.

I think those were fliers or letters.
Anyway, the intent was the same. That's designed to get someone to back off—to intimidate. One of the most notorious instances was in South Carolina in 2000, having to do with Sen. McCain. That was the whisper campaign and fliers on the windshields that Sen. McCain had fathered an illegitimate African-American child.

Have you heard about the bogus Romney Christmas card in South Carolina this year?
That was the last one I was going to get to. It had in it polygamy [a practice once associated with the Mormon church but long ago renounced by church leaders]. Again, probably those are targeted at evangelical voters in South Carolina, and it's geared toward triggering a bigoted reaction.

How hard is it to find out who is behind an effort like that? Obviously these Christmas cards or letters or fliers don't have a return address. Is it possible to find out who is behind these actions?
It depends on what kind of resources you're going to throw at it. It's probably pretty tough, because it's probably first-class mail, so it can't be tracked that way. They're probably dumped off in a mailbox in some rural area, so it's hard to figure out [the place of origin]. Maybe some guy drove a hundred miles to dump it in a mailbox that's not near the place he generally works. Nowhere are you going to find a disclosure on anyone's campaign report that says "Romney-polygamy-bigotry mail piece." It's just not going to show up that way.

Does South Carolina have a particularly bad reputation for dirty tricks?
It does, and it's probably well deserved because of the kind of stuff you see down there. It's rough stuff.

Can you explain the importance of "oppo research"?
Yeah, in fact that's how I got my start in politics. There are really two types of opposition research: there's what's called the vulnerability study; that's a study the candidates undertake upon themselves to figure out where their weaknesses are. And that's a tough one, because the candidate needs to be willing to go under the microscope. The other one is opposition research, and that can be as mundane as public records stuff—quotes in the paper, voting records—all the way to stuff that's a bit more personal or seedy or sordid. That can involve anything from culling library morgues to hiring a private investigator … Here's how this stuff works: it's hard to just dump a charge into the public domain. Those tend to not have the impact of a charge that is somehow salient to the campaign. So, to use an example, if a candidate is saying, "I'm the clean, green, environmentally friendly candidate," and they've got a toxic waste dump in their back yard, well, that's a potent hit. Because there's hypocrisy there. And that's what opposition research is really geared to do: to find inconsistencies and, more importantly, hypocrisies that can be used against the candidate.

Now, in the primary cycle, the various candidates are focused on rivals in their own party. How much oppo research do you think is going on now at the party level to prepare for the general election to come? Are the various party organizations starting to collect dirt on key opponents from the other parties?
The RNC [Republican National Committee] and the DNC embarked on that probably a year ago. That's the engine right there. That's where you manufacture all the potential issues that you can use.

Presumably they are storing up whatever opposition research they have. They wouldn't want to use it now, because they want to see who is going to win the nomi­nation. They'd want to use whatever they've stored up to use later in the process, correct?
Yeah. The parties' job is to get all the supplies ready for the nominee to march in and take over and do what they're going to do. And anyway, as you know, presidential campaigns are largely driven by you and your colleagues [in the press]. To some extent they're driven by paid advertising. But at the presidential level, that type of information is used to feed to the press to drive the story that way.

What was prison like?
It's not a pleasant place. When I was running campaigns, there were a lot of issues, and one of the issues I remember using was "tough on crime," "three strikes and you're out," the "no-frills prison act," which was designed not to replace equipment in prisons. For instance, the prisoners use weight equipment. The no-frills prison act means you can't repair this equipment when it breaks. What I realized was that all the stuff I used to use in campaigns affected real people. The other revelation I had was that we put way too many people in prison.