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Pro-Romney Super PAC, campaign blur lines on polling

The pro-Mitt Romney Super PAC has paid $803,000 to a small polling firm that is owned by the senior partners of a prominent Republican consulting company that does the polling for the Romney presidential campaign, according to the campaign finance reports.

The overlap between the two polling firms, located right door to each other in Alexandria, Va., is the latest example of the close and sometimes hidden connections between the presidential campaigns and the theoretically independent Super PACs that are backing the candidates.

It is also a closeness that includes the news media: Under an entirely separate arrangement, the nationally known firm doing the polling for the Romney campaign, Public Opinion Strategies, also conducts half the polling for the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll overseen by Public Opinion partner Bill McInturff and Democratic pollster Peter Hart. 

The latest filing by the pro-Romney super pac, Restore Our Future, show five payments totaling $449,000 last month for “survey research” to a company called NMB Research, listed at 206 N. Fayette Street, in Alexandria. This is on top of five previous payments to the same firm of $354.500.

Virginia corporate records show that NMB Research was incorporated as a Limited Liability Corporation or LLC, but they provide no information about who the owners or partners are. But one clue is the N. Fayette street address. It’s the building next door to Public Opinion Strategies, one of whose senior partners is Neil Newhouse, the chief pollster for the Romney presidential campaign. 

An NBC researcher who visited the address found a sign instructing that all mail and packages for the offices of NMB Research be delivered next door at 214 N. Fayette, the street address of Public Opinion Strategies. 

Federal election laws bar campaign and so-called “independent expenditure” groups such as super pacs – which are unfettered by limits on campaign contributions-- from “coordinating” their operations, including sharing their polling results.

But the Romney presidential campaign, the Romney Super PAC, and Public Opinion Strategies all dispute that any “coordination” or sharing of polling data is taking place. 

“Our campaign follows both the letter and the spirit of the law,” said campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul.

“We do our own polling and it’s exclusively for us,” said Charles Spies, counsel for Restore Our Future. 

Public Opinion Strategies partner McInturff confirmed that he and Newhouse are both partners in NMB Research—an entirely permissible arrangement, he said, so long as the two polling entities do not share the data they collect for their respective clients.

“Like many firms on both sides of the aisle, we recognize the strict federal election laws that apply to our business, which includes work for candidates, political parties and independent expenditure/issue advocacy groups,” McInturff said in an email. “The FEC [Federal Election Commission] rules specifically permit firms such as ours to establish internal firewalls designed to keep our candidate work walled off from the services performed for other types of clients such as independent expenditure groups. In order to follow the law, we have implemented the appropriate FEC firewalls to keep our work for candidates and independent expenditure/issue advocacy groups separate and compliant.”

Fred Wertheimer, who heads a campaign watchdog group that has been urging the Justice Department to investigate “coordination” between the presidential campaigns and super pacs, acknowledged that FEC regulations do “probably” permit the NMB arrangement as described by McInturff.

But, he said, this only shows “the absurdity” of FEC regulations—and the interconnections between the presidential campaigns and Super PACs (which, because they can take unlimited amounts from wealthy donors and corporations, have been financing most of the negative attack ads during the GOP presidential contest.)

"This is an example of common consultants being used by both the campaign and Super PAC,” Wertheimer said. “It’s clearly an example of coordinated activities.”

As for Public Opinion Strategies’ statement that there is a firewall between the two polling firms, Wertheimer said: “There is no such thing as a firewall. How do you know what is going on within an organization? There is no monitor or enforcement. “

The close ties between NMB Research and Public Opinion Strategies is hardly the only example of the blurry lines among consultants working for the campaigns and the Super PACs. 

According to its latest report, Restore Our Future has now paid a total of $456,750 for survey research to another Alexandria consulting firm, Target Point Consulting, that has also been getting payments from the Romney presidential campaign. (Like Public Opinion Strategies, its founder recently told the New York Times that his firm has a “firewall” between those working for the Super PAC. Restore Our Future has also paid $1.9 million to Podium Capital Group, a Beverly, Ma. LLC, set up last year by Steve Roach, a former Romney presidential campaign fundraiser, who now performs the same services for the Romney Super PAC.

But consultant firms serving two masters in this campaign isn’t unique to Romney, either. The latest report filed by Priorities USA Action, the Super PAC backing President Obama, showed $28,000 to Peter D. Hart Research Associates. That’s for the services of veteran Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin, president of Peter Hart Research, whose founder Peter Hart oversees—along with McInturff—the NBC News Wall Street Journal poll.