Saturday, May 20, 2006

Who is Push Polling for Fiona Ma in the Senate Assembly race?

I got a "survey call" last week asking me questions about my opinion about the California State Assembly race from a group called OTR (On Track Research) out of Florida. I'm going to call it a push poll.

Now what is a push poll? It is a poll designed to spread rumors and to disparage the reputation of the person the pollsters are targeting in the guise of an opinion poll. The people who commissioned it don't really care about the results, they just want to get the rumors and whisper campaign started based on negative, false and misleading info.

A push poll is one of the politics tactics that Karl Rove "allegedly" used to smear John McCain in South Carolina. I've long found it disgusting and I've wondered how to combat it. Like the Zombie Facts that Atrios talks about that keep getting used over and over even years after they have been discredited, push polling can be difficult to combat.

For example:

Bush's campaign strategists, including Karl Rove, devised a push poll against John McCain. South Carolina voters were asked "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?". They had no interest in the actual percentages in the poll, the goal was to suggest that he had. This was particularly vicious since McCain was campaigning with his adopted Bangladeshi daughter. The sight of the little dark skinned girl made the seed planted earlier grow and John McCain lost South Carolina, effectively ending his run for the presidency.

-- SourceWatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy (link)

During my poll I was asked questions about Janet Reilly and Fiona Ma, but I was only asked questions designed to cast aspersions on Reilly. Some polling experts make distinctions about what is a legit poll and what is a push poll. Kathy Frankovic, Director of Surveys for CBS News, says, " A push poll is political telemarketing masquerading as a poll." She also says that:

Not all questions that seem negative are part of push polls. Candidate organizations sometimes do actual polls that contain negative information about the opposing candidate. These polls, which are not push polls, are conducted for the same reasons market and advertising researchers do their work: to see what kinds of themes and packages move the public.

Other experts say we should focus on intent:

Again, the proof is in the intent: If the sponsor intends to communicate a message to as many voters as possible rather than measure opinions or test messages among a sample of voters, it qualifies as a "push poll."

A call made for the purposes of disseminating information under the guise of survey is still a fraud - and thus still a "push poll" - even if the facts of the "questions" are technically true or defensible.

The Mystery Pollster

Now I'm not a brilliant political strategist, I'm just a brain in a box, but I have been giving this some thought.

I can't know the intent of whomever commissioned the poll and it's hard to know if they are contacting 40,000 voters or 40 since they likely won't divulge that information.

No matter who commissioned this or what the intent, based on the questions in the poll that I got, it seemed designed to disseminate information under the guise of a survey or as the The National Council on Public Polls (NCPP) defines it:

"A telemarketing technique in which telephone calls are used to canvass vast numbers of potential voters, feeding them false and damaging 'information' about a candidate under the guise of taking a poll to see how this 'information' affects voter preferences. In fact, the intent is to 'push' the voters away from one candidate and toward the opposing candidate."

The thing that occupies me the most about this kind of polling is how to combat it. It is almost a no-lose situation for the campaign deploying it. Why? Because once they ring the bell about false information, it is hard to be "unrung". As Richard Davis, the campaign manager for the McCain campaign said, in the Boston Globe story, The anatomy of a smear campaign"

Campaigns have various ways of dealing with smears. They can refute the lies, or they can ignore them and run the risk of the smear spreading. But "if you're responding, you're losing." Rebutting tawdry attacks focuses public attention on them, and prevents the campaign from talking issues.

We chose to address the attacks by trying to get the media to focus on the dishonesty of the allegations and to find out who was making them. We also pledged to raise the level of debate by refusing to run any further negative ads -- a promise we kept, though it probably cost us the race. We never did find out who perpetrated these smears, but they worked: We lost South Carolina by a wide margin.

So one way might be to educate voters on this topic and bust campaigns that try this moment they start it. Maybe I should have made a bigger stink about this right away, so fewer calls would be made. But I thought, "Will I simply draw attention to the disinformation? Will actually writing about the poll INCREASE the number of people who hear about any disinformation or political positioning it contains?

I finally decided to write this piece focusing on the technique as an education issue. I contacted both campaigns to ask if they commissioned it.
A worker answering the phone for the Ma campaign said no. The campaign manager for Janet Reilly assured me that they weren't behind it and and pointed out the flood of money flowing into the Ma campaign from third party groups that could have funded and commissioned it.

Note the interesting gambit candidate backers can use. They can fund a push poll and they don't have to tell the campaign. Actually I believe they are not SUPPOSED TO, especially anything that makes it look like they are coordinating with the candidates official campaign. Well, since the campaigns aren't supposed to coordinate, I called OTR in Melbourne Florida. And, no surprise, they can't tell me who commissioned the survey. Neat trick.

So, we have one "outside" group that isn't supposed to inform the inside group at the campaign what they are doing by law and in addition, the "outside" group hires a third party that "ethically" can't tell us who commissioned the survey. An even better trick.

Now I checked to see who was funding the Ma campaign. (link)
Based on the amount contributed, this could have been commissioned by "Leaders for Effective Government" see Matier and Ross for a little back story here.

I wrote Jerry Waldie the head of the group Leaders for Effective Government two days ago and he said that he personally didn't know about this, but he would forward a staff response to me. I haven't heard back yet.

James Fabris, the Chief Executive Officer of the San Francisco Association Of Realtors responded to my letter and said "No. I know nothing about it."

I haven't heard from Carol Bravo the General Manager of the Peace Officers Research Association Of California yet either.

Now if anyone from the campaigns wants more information about this call since I took some notes (say for example you DIDN'T commission it and you would like to know what it contains, so you can refute any misinformation, drop me a note) and if you are in the mainstream media and would like more information on this I can talk to you as well, but my goal here is NOT to talk about the charges made, but to expose and discredit the entire PRACTICE, no matter who is doing it. Hopefully we could solicit a pledge from any campaign to refrain from this practice all together and if it is undertaken by a third party on their behalf to condemn the practice. They should also inform the voters of the action and condemn the group who undertook it.

I hesitate to ask that candidates talk about the charges made. Would it have helped John McCain if the group that started the push poll whisper campaign said, "We are sorry that we claimed that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. That was wrong. He simply adopted a Bangladeshi daughter. We don't know if he fathered any illegitimate black children." For the racist bigots who DIDN'T hear that "information" would it simply reinforce the smear? If they didn't say WHAT the push poll campaign was about would they generate MORE bad rumors based on nothing at all?

In the case of push polling, the press might need to take a more active role in beating this down and condemning the practice. If the practice can be condemned strongly by the media so that if a campaign uses it they will get WORSE PR than what they might gain, that might help.
As in, "I refuse to vote for Bush because of that terrible push poll whisper campaign they started. Push polling it disgusting, dishonest and I refuse to vote for anyone who would stoop to those tactics no matter how nice he seems to have a beer with."

If a candidate didn't start it, then he or show should condemn it the second they find out what happened and criticize the group that did it. In addition they should publicly let people know WHO was behind it, who paid for it and who did the actual work. In fact, the candidate should go on record in such a way that strongly disassociates them from the tactic and people involved. Hopefully this will educate people to the tactic and make candidates and groups using it think twice before they try it because of the negative consequences.

Finally, I have no financial relationship with either campaign.


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