OREM — For 21 years, Western Wats, a Utah research data-collection firm that does most of its work over the phone and via the Web, has quietly provided jobs for the corps of college kids who arrive each year to study at Brigham Young University or Utah Valley State College.

But a recent political brouhaha ended that behind-the-scenes anonymity.

Reports surfaced that telephone "push polls," purported by some to have been done by Western Wats interviewers, were attempts to plant negative views of Mitt Romney in critical presidential primary states.

But, without acknowledging a role in the survey, Western Wats' own Web site points readers to another term: "message testing."

On Nov. 11, at least 16 people in New Hampshire and Iowa, states with early presidential primaries, participated in 20-minute phone surveys about the election and candidates. Critics labeled the surveys "push polls."

Employees at the Western Wats offices on the old WordPerfect campus in north Orem are aware of the national attention their company has been garnering — but they declined to talk about it and referred all questions to a company spokesman.

Western Wats officials have been under scrutiny since allegations were made that the company engaged in a push poll to taint the public's view of GOP presidential candidate Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and the man largely credited with turning around the scandal-ridden 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics.

Robert Maccabee, the company's director of client services, denied that the company, which also has offices in Provo and Spanish Fork, engaged in push polling, a method of influencing voters through the auspices of a poll.

"I can tell you we do not do push polling," Maccabee said.

Maccabee pointed to Western Wats' Web site, in which readers are presented definitions of legitimate polling, "message testing" and "unethical" push polls.

The site in turn refers readers to a Web-posted statement from the American Association for Public Opinion Research, which does not consider "message testing" to be unethical.

"Political campaigns routinely sponsor legitimate 'message-testing' surveys that are used by campaign consults to test out the effectiveness of various possible campaign messages or campaign ad content, often including negative messages," the AAPOR statement reads. "Political message-testing surveys may sometimes be confused with fake polling."

So the subject may come down to whether the controversial survey was a "push poll" or "message testing." And Western Wats isn't saying whether it played a role. "Confidentiality agreements prohibit us from commenting on specific projects and/or clients," the company's statement says.

Among the Nov. 11 survey's questions: Whether the residents knew Romney was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; were aware he was excused from military service for a church mission in France; and if they were familiar with an LDS Church doctrine that prohibited blacks from serving as church bishops into the 1970s.

Critics of the calls say it is not the questions' content that is raising eyebrows but the way in which they were worded, their context and the implications being made.

The calls were made from a telephone number with an 801-area code that has been traced to Western Wats in Utah. But the company isn't exclusively located in Utah.

"We have phone centers in several different states around Utah," Maccabee said. "We're located in primarily college towns."

Founded in 1986, Western Wats now provides about 2,000 full-time positions, Maccabee said, mostly as telephone surveyors.

"Only about 8 to 10 percent of our company revenues are from political work," Maccabee said. "We do market research for almost anything you can imagine, from dog food to high-tech equipment."

However, Western Wats has participated in some prestigious political campaigns, including Bob Dole's presidential run in 1996. Employees said that they painted Dole's GOP rival Steve Forbes as being pro-abortion.

Companies or candidates hire market research companies or political pollsters to formulate survey questions and determine who they want interviewed. Then they hire data-collection companies such as Western Wats to conduct the surveys.

Initially, the campaigns of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani were suspected of being behind the alleged push poll. But in some quarters, Romney's campaign is now a suspect, too. Some of those interviewed about the questions asked of them in Iowa and New Hampshire have links to the Romney campaign. And there are Romney's ties to Utah.

Both Romney and McCain have asked the New Hampshire attorney general to investigate the telephone surveys.

Complicated ties have been traced between the various campaigns and Western Wats:

• Giuliani's campaign finance reports show he is using a Virginia firm called the Tarrance Group, which has previously hired Western Wats to conduct surveys. Both Western Wats and the Tarrance Group have denied working together in the past month.

• The National Review linked family members of Western Wats founder Ron Lindorf to Romney's campaign activities. Lindorf and his family deny any connection. The family is no longer involved with Western Wats, now owned by a private equity firm based in Connecticut.

• Campaigns in the past have used negative messages to elicit sympathy for candidates. For instance, Robert F. Kennedy was behind anti-Catholic phone calls and literature during his brother's presidential race.

Fifty years later, the religious intolerance believed to have been fostered by the telephone surveys provided Romney an opportunity to denounce it as "un-American" and an affront to religious freedom.

The Romney campaign, however, rejects any notion that it is "involved with efforts against our own candidate," according to a response to the story in National Review.

27 comments on this story "Even cursory reviews of news reports would indicate that the research firm in question, Western Wats, is a prominent research collection company that was used by firms that are currently employed by rival campaigns," Romney's campaign said.


Contributing: Associated Press

E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com