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Mitt Romney, Push Polls, And McCain-Feingold

Earlier today, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney responded to reports that "push polls" – phone calls that first seem like legitimate polls but are intended to raise questions about a candidate – had been used to draw attention to his Mormon faith, among other issues.

"I think the attempts to attack me on the basis of my faith are un-American," Romney said. He went on to suggest that it was legislation tied to one of his rivals, John McCain, that was partly responsible for what took place.

"I'm very disappointed in the political process that someone is pursuing to use this kind of underhanded, un-American technique to try and influence a political campaign and I anticipate there will be those that ask how in the world can this happen, how is it we don't know who's doing it?" Romney said. "And in that regard, you have to look back at the legislation that's known as McCain-Feingold."

When asked about McCain launching an investigation into the push polling, Romney said "it's kind of ironic that Senator McCain is filing that request for an investigation."

He added: "Senator McCain is the father of McCain-Feingold and it's McCain-Feingold that opens the pathway for this very kind of political technique. McCain-Feingold is the monster that we're having to deal with here."

The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, which passed in 2002, was designed to stem the flow of unfettered soft-money donations to parties and keep issue ads from corporations and unions from airing close to an election. In the five years since, it has become a target of conservatives, who complain that it hampers free speech.

But is Romney's tying of the push poll controversy to McCain-Feingold fair? For an answer, we turned to Anthony Corrado, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and an expert on campaign finance, who is a proponant of McCain-Feingold.

"It's not a fair characterization at all," Corrado said. "Push polling was taking place before McCain-Feingold. It was a problem in the 2000 Republican primaries, and was used in elections prior to 2000." He said it is "not a new technique, and certainly is not a technique something one can link to McCain-Feingold."

Romney makes a connection between the campaign finance reform measure and the anonymity of such attacks. But Corrado says the question of who pays for push polls has to do with disclosure legislation passed in 2000 – before McCain-Feingold – which came in response to issue ads aired by outside groups such as ``Republicans for Clean Air." There are many advocates for broader disclosure when it comes to push polls, he said, but the issue is not a function of campaign finance law.

Corrado did allow for one area where you might be able to tie push polls to McCain-Feingold. Under the legislation, restrictions mandate that if outside groups known as 527s were doing broadcast advertising within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary, and the ads featured a candidate, they couldn't use corporate or union money. But no similar restrictions were put on ground advertising such as direct mail -- and push polling. Since we aren't within 30 days of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, however, this provision doesn't come into play. And, of course, since we don't know who was responsible for the push poll, we don't know whether a 527 is to blame.