A veteran political operative who pioneered an extremely shady electioneering tactic on behalf of some of the nation’s most prominent Republicans is on a new mission—to use that tactic to defeat a Republican president.
Steve Goldberg says he’s founded a new super PAC, Express Yourself, that is calling voters in key swing states to ask whether they believe “Jesus Christ would approve or disapprove of the nicknames Donald Trump gives to people that are mean [and] hurtful.” The calls also attempt to frame a potential Trump victory as a loss for Republicans; if Trump prevails, they claim, Democrats will retake the U.S. Senate and sweep a radical into the White House in 2024.
Goldberg claims the effort is all about chipping away at Trump’s base of Republican support. “My agenda is to blow up Donald Trump. I don’t give a shit about Joe Biden,” he told The Daily Beast in an interview on Thursday. (Goldberg’s phone scripts, on the other hand, tell voters to “trust your faith in Jesus and your own integrity and vote for Joe Biden.”)
Goldberg, who calls himself “a propaganda machine,” is not modest about the effort. “I’m an unbelievable weapon. A dangerous weapon,” he said. With his new project, Goldberg said, “I got Trump by the balls.” But while he is supremely confident in his first round of anti-Trump telemarketing calls, the numbers so far don’t seem to bear out his grandiose claims, and experts who spoke with The Daily Beast cast doubt on the efficacy of efforts like his.
Goldberg is one of a number of bare-knuckled GOP operatives now purportedly working to knock out Trump. But few of those operatives are so famous for their political sucker punches. Fewer still were tied so recently to a key overseas ally of Trump’s—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And there may not be any with a greater financial incentive to be seen as being on the winning electoral team. For more than a decade, Goldberg and his wife have owed more than half a million dollars to New York tax authorities, according to documents on file with the state. The Internal Revenue Service has also levied a number of five- and six-figure liens against the couple. Some have been repaid, but according to New York records, Goldberg and his wife still owe the IRS nearly $1 million.
Goldberg’s tactics are what’s referred to as push-polling, the practice of attempting to manipulate voter attitudes with loaded survey questions that seek to persuade more than gather information about voter preferences. (In September 2019, Facebook temporarily suspended Netanyahu’s Facebook account for a Goldberg-authored script containing a line about “Arabs who want to annihilate us all—women, children, and men,” which Facebook deemed “hate speech.”) The practice is generally frowned upon, as it masks negative campaigning with the veneer of a survey of voter attitudes. Push-pollsters are less concerned with gathering information than disseminating it in backhanded fashion.
“Political advocacy calls made under the guise of a survey abuse the public’s trust,” according to the American Association of Public Opinion Research. “They gain the attention of respondents under false pretenses by taking advantage of the good will people have toward legitimate research.”
But Goldberg proudly—if inaccurately—declares that he invented the practice while working on Republican Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. “If there was a political hall of fame, I would be in it already for push polling,” he boasted. But he acknowledges it’s made him “one of the bad guys in the history of politics,” as he put it. But “I’m a decent man, and I want to crush this guy [Trump] and his fascist group.”
There’s no public information yet about Express Yourself’s finances or activities—it hasn’t existed long enough to file any periodic reports with the Federal Election Commission—making it difficult to gauge the resources Goldberg is spending on the effort, or how much he himself is making from it. Other public records show that he is in a deep financial hole personally, in spite of decades as a political consultant that had him, on occasion, raking in annual consulting fees in the seven figures.
Goldberg formed Express Yourself last month, according to FEC records, and the group’s website says it plans to target Arizona, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida with robocalls that seek to splinter off some of the Republican vote and get them into the Biden column. Goldberg told The Daily Beast he’s paused calls in Wisconsin in the wake of a police shooting and subsequent riots there, but may resume calling there soon. He also said he plans to move his efforts to Ohio as well.
According to the Express Yourself call script, callers first ask if respondents are Trump supporters. If they are, the caller is instructed to ask whether “religion [is] very important to you when you decide who to vote for.” If the respondent says it’s not important, the caller gets off the line.
If religion is important, the respondent is hit with the next question, whether Jesus would be into Trump’s name-calling. If the respondent says Jesus would approve, the caller hangs up. If they say he wouldn’t, the caller then moves on to the real ask: “Don’t worry, God is our future, not Donald Trump, and God will make it work out the best for our great country.”
The call script also has a response ready for respondents who identify themselves as Republicans, but not Trump supporters. It asks them to vote for Biden in the hope of securing a Republican Senate with a Democrat in the White House. “By Biden winning and Republicans holding on to the Senate to check the left, a revitalized Republican Party will take the House back and keep the Senate in 2022 and we will have a great candidate to recapture the White House in 2024,” the script says.
If Trump wins re-election, callers are instructed to tell Trump-skeptical Republicans, the radical left will take over and elect one of its own in 2024. “Would that make you more likely to hold your nose and vote for Biden so the country and the party can move on from the toxic world of Donald Trump?” it asks.
Goldberg is bullish on initial results of the telemarketing campaign. Results from the first round of 5,000 phone calls to registered Republican voters in the five key states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, and Ohio, he said, show “stunning” vulnerabilities for Donald Trump among evangelical voters who supported him in 2016.
The figures Goldberg considered most significant were that 22 percent of respondents identifying as members of the Republican Party, rather than those identifying a personal loyalty to Trump, told the callers they hoped Trump would not win the 2020 election. Of that 22 percent, more than half—56 percent—declared they would be voting for Joe Biden in November, Goldberg claims.
Goldberg’s claims about the details of his operation are difficult to verify, and his grand predictions about its effectiveness are difficult to square even with his own descriptions of the scale of the campaign. The notion that it could flip Republican voters with a telemarketer’s appeal to their faith seems to fly in the face of Trump’s consistent stranglehold on the Republican vote. And the scale of an operation large enough to flip large states such as Florida into Biden’s column likely exceeds by a significant margin the thousand daily calls Goldberg’s group is averaging in each state it’s targeted.
Experts who spoke with The Daily Beast said that, in general, push polling is not a particularly effective persuasion strategy, even when they, like Goldberg’s, are not trying to seed false information about an opponent. “Based on what I've observed in 30 years of following politics,” said Mack Mariani, a professor of political science at Xavier University, “push polls spreading true information are just not efficient.” The practice “looks shady, and if the information is true, there are usually better ways to get it out to the public.”
But Goldberg is supremely confident in the effort. “Trump can’t afford to lose those people,” He insisted that the numbers from his group’s first round of calls shows that his effort can draw enough Republicans away from Trump to tip some crucial swing states. “The surest way to beat Donald Trump is me,” he declared. “I get enough of those Republicans to flip on him, then guess what, he can't win.”
Goldberg has mostly flown under the radar in American politics of late. But he popped up in 2016 to chide the Trump campaign, in an interview with BuzzFeed News, for failing to more aggressively target voters with his style of telemarketing campaigns. According to BuzzFeed, Goldberg even sought a position on the Trump team by way of campaign chairman Paul Manafort, a longtime Goldberg acquaintance, who is now serving federal prison time.
Goldberg told The Daily Beast that it was actually Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, who offered him a campaign position. “I turned him down. He didn’t offer me enough money,” Goldberg claims. Asked about his willingness to work for a man, in Trump, whom he now considers a fascist, Goldberg said, “I never liked him, but I had to eat.”
This time around, Goldberg couches his work to defeat Trump as not just a political project but an economic boon for the state economies where he sets up shop. “Our comprehensive program will create thousands of jobs over the next months,” Express Yourself’s website declares. “These jobs will make a real, measurable impact on the lives of thousands of families and help stimulate our stagnated economy during these hard times.”
It’s an odd boast for a political operation. And while Goldberg’s phone-banking operations have traditionally relied on actual human callers rather than robocalling systems, some of Goldberg’s previous telemarketing endeavors have ended in disputes with employees. In the late '90s, one of his companies, Campaign Tel, abruptly shuttered, laying off hundreds of employees without notice.
Nearly 150 Campaign Tel employees subsequently filed complaints with California authorities over unpaid wages. The company’s creditors engaged in years of litigation attempting to recoup money they claimed Goldberg’s company owed them.
In more than three decades in the campaign telemarketing business, Goldberg’s professional endeavors and personal finances have been dogged by allegations of financial impropriety. His work for the Dole campaign came under scrutiny after the 1996 election over allegations of kickbacks involving Campaign Tel’s work. At the time, Goldberg called the allegations “ludicrous.”
A couple of years later, Campaign Tel’s chief financial officer began noticing “billing irregularities” at the company, according to documents filed in a lawsuit brought by Campaign Tel against its bank in 2004. The judge in that case found that “the actions of… Steven Goldberg, were an ‘intervening cause’ of the Company’s collapse.”
Just two years after Campaign Tel’s collapse, though, Goldberg was back in business in his native New York, where he spearheaded an anti-Hillary Clinton telemarketing campaign. For his efforts, Goldberg’s new company, SHG Consulting, pulled down about $1.6 million in payments from the state Republican Party. He’d go on to work for campaigns including the late Sen. John McCain’s run for the White House and for a super PAC backing former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s 2012 presidential bid. But Goldberg says he didn’t just work for Republicans; according to his bio, he’s also lent his services to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.
He also has extensive experience in Israeli politics, where he’s plied his trade on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since last year, Netanyahu has run three successive and inconclusive national leadership campaigns. Netanyahu and Goldberg parted company between Netanyahu’s second and third 2019 national campaigns, at about the time the embattled PM exchanged John McLaughlin, Trump’s 2016 adviser and pollster, for Tony Fabrizio, another top Trump pollster. (McLaughlin and Fabrizio, Goldberg said with a laugh, “are shitting their pants right now” about his new anti-Trump effort.)
For now, Netanyahu retains power, albeit not the full power of the prime ministership, thanks to a rickety power-sharing coalition he established four months ago with centrist former rival Benny Gantz.
A fourth round of voting appears to already be in the offing. Goldberg believes Netanyahu can’t win it. “Bibi is an ideal that failed,” Goldberg said, using Netayahu’s nickname. “I’ve sat in meetings with Bibi and he is brilliant, he’s fair, he weighs stuff… he was the real thing.”
Goldberg has no such kind words for Netanyahu’s ally in the White House, Donald Trump.