When Push Comes to Poll
by LARRY J. SABATO
Washington Monthly, June 1996, volume 28, no. 6, pages 26-31.
It was January, and Steve Forbes was riding high on flat tax fever. Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News featured him on their covers; he led the polls in Iowa. Then suddenly, like a political Hindenburg, Forbes was crashing and burning. As the caucuses drew near, polls showed a remarkable slide in his support.
At the same time, Forbes headquarters started receiving curious reports from supporters--reports of phone calls trashing the publishing scion. Some callers claimed to be conducting a poll, others just spewed criticism--of Forbes's flat tax plan or his position on gays in the military--and hung up. Some claimed to be from "National Market Research," others from a group called "Iowa's Farm Families." Some gave no identification at all.
Forbes knew he'd been ambushed, but there wasn't much he could do without any hard evidence. He called a press conference to allege that Senator Bob Dole, the putative but weak front-runner, was behind the telephone tricks. But Dole and his handlers flatly denied it. Indeed, the Senate majority leader went so far as to suggest that Forbes had caught some of Ross Perot's famed paranoia. Added campaign manager Scott Reed, "Forbes is attempting to muddy the waters by falsely accusing the Dole campaign and other candidates of making anonymous telephone calls attacking him."
Having beaten back Forbes's insurgency, Dole went on to win an underwhelming but nonetheless crucial two-percentage-point victory in the caucuses.
But when they denied the dirty tricks campaign, Dole and his staff either were misinformed or weren't telling the truth. Hearing Forbes's allegations against Dole, a political columnist for the Springfield, Illinois, Journal-Register named Bernard Schoenburg followed up some tips about a "boiler room" operation in town said to be working for Bob Dole. Schoenburg soon found a number of people, including homeless people and refugees from the fast food industry, who gave detailed accounts of making calls for the Dole campaign at $6 an hour. A few weeks later, The Wall Street Journal matched Schoenburg's initial report with Dole campaign records showing more than $1 million in payments to a somewhat notorious New York City telemarketing firm, Campaign Tel Ltd. The head of the firm admitted to conducting a massive negative phoning campaign on Dole's behalf. Interviews with employees and corporate documents indicate that at least 10,000 calls were made to Iowa alone, and that Campaign Tel ran similar operations in New Hampshire and other key primary states.
Confronted with this new evidence two weeks after the caucuses, the Dole campaign admitted a negative phoning campaign. But spokeswoman Christina Martin insisted to the Journal that the calls "amounted to messages that have mirrored our television commercials." She offered no explanation for the blanket denials issued originally.
During every campaign season, a great deal of attention is properly devoted to condemning misleading television advertisements and nasty direct mail. But the telephone is now the primary means for delivering underhanded and anonymous attacks in political campaigns. This explosion in negative phoning--called "push polling"--has largely been ignored, even though it has become the rage in American campaigns, to the detriment of both civility and the truth. The push poll operates under the guise of legitimate survey research to spread lies, rumors, and innuendo about candidates. Hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of voters were telephoned and push polled during the 1994 elections. This effort dramatically increased the negativity in American politics.
Many voters and observers are disgusted and enraged by this tactic, but sleaze telephoning can work efficiently and effectively. Unless exposed and checked, it is bound to become standard ammunition in campaign arsenals across the United States. Only a sharp, sustained rebuke from the press and an informed public bent on punishing the perpetrators can stop the swift spread of this campaign cancer.
Reach Out and Slime Someone
A push poll is a survey instrument containing questions that attempt to change the opinion of contacted voters, generally by divulging negative information about the opponent. In other words, it's campaigning under the guise of research.
Some forms of push polling are legitimate. The most common and defensible practice is an adjunct to "opposition research," efforts to learn about opponents' records and discover what might reduce public support for them. Commonly, a pollster working for a candidate will pre-test positive and negative campaign themes--including some blemishes that may not yet be publicly known. The information contained in research-oriented push polls is fact-based and essentially true (even if presented in a blunt and exaggerated partisan style).
A second type of push poll--the "agenda-driven survey"--is intended to produce a favorable result for the client-candidate, so that potential contributors and the press can be apprised of the candidate's "impending victory." Donors want to give hard-earned dollars to a likely winner, and the news media love to publish and air horse-race polls. With some luck, skillful pollsters can create a bandwagon effect for their candidate. The poll consists of reading biographical sketches--heavily biased against the opponent--and asking the respondent whom they will likely support. As you might guess, these polls are extremely poor predictors of actual outcomes. In a race for a Missouri House seat in 1994, Republican pollster Frank Luntz found an eight-percentage-point lead for GOP nominee Ron Freeman over Democrat Karen McCarthy. Yet on election day McCarthy won easily, despite the overall GOP tide.
The first two types of push polls seem almost harmless when compared with the third form, namely "negative persuasive" or "advocacy phoning." This push poll is not really a poll at all, but a form of targeted voter contact and canvassing. It doesn't target a random sample, but as many voters in a target population--union members, for example, or gun owners--as possible. The message is short--even a minute or less--and asks no demographical background information of the respondents. Respondents are first asked which candidate they favor. If the client-candidate is chosen, the respondent is simply placed on the get-out-the-vote list for election day. But if the respondent picks the opponent or says she is undecided, then a torrent of negativity is unleashed: "Would you still support this person if you learned that he [is a tax-evader, a baby-killer, or shoots newborn puppies for sport]?" As one frank push pollster explains, "What you're trying to do is mobilize voters against a candidate.... You're taking a specific audience and literally telling them why they shouldn't be voting for somebody."
The scale and telephone technology of push polling are new; the concept itself, and the depths to which it can descend, unfortunately are not. Richard Nixon was one of push polling's pioneers. In his very first campaign, a successful 1946 run for the U.S. House against Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis, Democratic voters throughout his district reported receiving telephone calls that began, "This is a friend of yours, but I can't tell you who I am. Did you know that Jerry Voorhis is a Communist?"--at which point the caller hung up. Although no firsthand evidence was produced to link the Nixon campaign directly with the calls, at least one individual has come forward admitting that she worked for Nixon at $9 a day, in a telephone-bank room where the attack calls were made.
For decades this kind of negativity was condemned by the press and most political professionals. Now, some candidates, parties, and consultants brag openly about their excursions into sleaze--once the campaign is over, that is. In 1986, for example, the Democrats and their allies in the labor unions undertook massive negative persuasive phoning just before the elections that restored a Democratic majority to the Senate after six years of GOP rule. The telephone message centered upon the Reagan administration's supposed plans to undermine and reduce funding for Social Security--a highly suspect allegation that nonetheless appeared to do the trick. This episode has been repeatedly cited by Democrats as a clever tactic, and similar polls continue to be a mainstay of Democratic "outreach" to senior citizens.
More than 100 political consulting firms specializing in persuasive phoning have sprung up over the past two decades. For example, 154 telephone firms offering political "direct contact" services were listed by Campaigns and Elections magazine. The new technology of computer-aided telephoning and target selection has made the process of political and commercial marketing by phone easier and cheaper; a single operator can make 80 to 100 completed calls with a short message each evening hour, at a cost (depending on message length and company) of $.45 to $1.30 per call. In other words, a quarter million targeted calls can be made for $112,000 to $325,000. The expense compares favorably to that of television and direct-mail ads, and firms that sell the service give candidates the hard sell--igniting the latent fear that the other side may be using the technique already.
One push-poll entrepreneur, Mac Hansbrough, president of Washington, D.C.-based National Telecommunications Services, wrote in 1992 that negative phoning was "the single most important and cost-effective communications tool a campaign can employ." In a Campaigns and Elections article called "Dial N for Negative," Hansbrough correctly suggested the technique would "take its place beside negative television, radio, and direct mail as a necessary tool in the ... consultant's arsenal."
One Hansbrough client in 1994 was Florida Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles, who ran a successful race for re-election against Republican Jeb Bush, son of former President George Bush. After the election, Republicans claimed that Chile's narrow victory (65,000 votes out of 4.2 million cast) was due to these negative telephone scripts, read to tens of thousands of Floridians shortly before the election.
Script 1: Hello. This is [interviewer's name] calling on behalf of the Florida Association of Senior Citizens. We are calling to let you know that [Republican nominee for governor] Jeb Bush is no friend of seniors. Bush's running mate has advocated the abolition of Social Security and called Medicare a welfare program that should be cut. We just can't trust Jeb Bush and [lieutenant governor nominee] Tom Feeney. Thank you and have a good day/evening.
Script 2: Hello. My name is [interviewer's name] calling from the Citizens for Tax Fairness. I am calling to remind you that, unlike thousands of your fellow citizens, Jeb Bush failed to pay local and state taxes, and he has profited at the taxpayers' expense from business deals involving failed savings and loan properties. Mr. Bush doesn't play by the same rules like the rest of us, and we want to make sure you are aware of this before you cast your vote on Tuesday. Thank you and have a good day/evening.
When these calls came to light, Chiles's aides denied involvement--a practice that usually works, because documentary evidence is hard to find and reporters often lose interest. But it has since emerged that the calls were made on orders from top campaign officials and carried out by a Washington telemarketing company. None of the charges against Bush or his running mate could be substantiated by the Chiles campaign. Now the incidents are being investigated at length by the Florida legislature, and Chiles has been forced to defend his integrity under oath before the body--a precedent in Florida history--with the embarrassing explanation that he was out of the loop.
But embarrassment from using push polls is rare. In fact, Hansbrough cites "lack of spillover" as one of the prime benefits. That is, negative phoning leaves few footprints. TV and radio ads can be heard by anyone and are often reported in the newspaper. Direct mail can find its way into anyone's hands. Phone calls leave no such trace. Scripts are tightly controlled and rarely get out to the press, general public, or opponents. Phone calls are the true communications stealth technology of the future. That means candidates have a hard time rebutting false information, journalists have a hard time doing "truth checks," and other measures that keep campaigning accountable to basic standards of decency and accuracy are absent.
It is also rare to find confirmation of push polls, as in the Chiles case. For that reason, it's possible that some of the reports below are inaccurate or exaggerated, because none of the polling was taperecorded. But the legislators listed here are recounting what random citizens and supporters told them or their staff after push polling. The wordings often ring true or sound familiar. And the sheer bulk of complaints lends them further credibility.
Candidates--fearing a backlash or a damaging news story--usually seek a buffer between their campaigns and the telephoning. So the sponsorship is passed to the national or state party committee, or a friendly allied group (e.g., a labor union or a conservative organization). In some cases, a separate front vehicle is actually invented, such as "Citizens for Tax Fairness" or a neutral-sounding polling research company. Typically, the campaign controls the message, and the final scripting normally is approved by it. But voters are left in the cold as to the origins of the calls.
One such company is the Southern Education Council, a telemarketing firm in Austin, Texas, that typically raises funds for firefighters' associations and other civic groups. A few days before the November 1994 elections, an employee named Joshua Harris reported for work to find a very different kind of script on his computer terminal. The calls targeted abortion-rights advocates Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania, Ronna Romney of Michigan, and Ann Wynia of Minnesota. "Easily 100,000 calls were made," Harris says. "Maybe more." All the candidates whom the phoning was designed to help--respectively, Republicans Rick Santorum, Spencer Abraham, and Rod Grams--won their races.
It was all too much for Harris, a 24-year-old African-American and Democratic Party activist. He alerted the Wynia campaign, which tipped off a reporter for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. For his pangs of conscience, Harris was temporarily suspended from his job.
For its part, the Southern Education Council refused to identify its client to us, and a thorough check of all relevant Federal Election Commission records revealed that no group had disclosed payments to the council or its parent company, even though disclosure was required under the Federal Election Campaign Act. It now appears that the telephoning was funded by the National Right to Life Committee, using money provided by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). Chris Georgacas, chair of the Minnesota GOP, identified the anti-abortion group as the source of the polling, and NRSC Chairman Senator Phil Gramm admitted giving $175,000 to the organization in the days leading up to the election.
A number of Democratic U.S. House candidates also told us about distorted push calls regarding their abortion records. Former Representative Ted Strickland of Ohio, who lost a close race for reelection in 1994, says his district was flooded in the last week with negative calls. He remembers it this way: "Basically, the message was this: `Do you know that Congressman Strickland supports abortion on demand through the ninth month [of pregnancy]? And that he wants to use public tax dollars to pay for it?"' "Now, it's true I support public funding," Strickland says, "but I have never supported abortion on demand through the ninth month, and would never, obviously." Strickland is convinced that the phoning came from outside his district because "on the one message left on a recording device that I heard, the [interviewer] mispronounced the name of my opponent. So the people making the calls were not familiar enough with him to pronounce his name correctly."
Sometimes outside interest groups and even political parties conduct negative persuasion phoning without the specific approval of, or script review by, individual campaigns. In a hard-fought contest for a U.S. House seat from Maine in 1994, Republican nominee Rick Bennett denounced a late-campaign push poll that asked respondents if their opinion of Bennett would be changed if they knew that he had "defaulted" on $10,000 worth of student loans, yet had lent the same amount to his campaign. Bennett actually had $7,000 remaining on his student loans at the time, but had consistently met his required monthly payments and abided by all the terms of the loan agreement.
Bennett learned of the push polling from a constituent named Scott Landry of Wilton, Maine. Landry had challenged the interviewer about the nature of the "poll," and was told the results would go to "the Democratic Party." The chairwoman of the Maine Democratic Party flatly denied that the party was engaging in any push polling. But one of Democratic candidate John Baldacci's campaign consultants, David Heller of Politics, Inc., now confirms the national Democratic Party had a role. He says the party hired the D.C. polling firm Lauer, Lalley & Associates, which was paid by labor unions. "They asked the student loan question," Heller says, and also, "If you knew Bennett sponsored a bill in the Maine Legislature that would have cut the state attorney general's budget down to virtually nothing and allowed murderers to go back out on the streets, would you support him?"'
According to Heller, the campaign hadn't wanted the push-polling assistance. "John Baldacci had promised not to run a negative campaign. We went out of our way to portray John as somebody who's not a politician, somebody different, somebody who's not going to throw mud. John looked great in comparison to all the other nasty races going on in Maine. And then, people start reading in the paper that the Baldacci camp is going negative and they say, `We knew he was just like everybody else."' Baldacci won a closer-than-expected race.
"This is one of my biggest frustrations," Heller says. "The Democratic Party decided they could run the race better than the candidate and his campaign. They tried to browbeat us into going negative and we wouldn't do it. Then they ran a negative poll to say, `Look, it works."'
As for the defeated Rick Bennett, he thinks his candidacy was severly damaged by the student loan allegation, even though he attempted to refute it in a press conference held shortly before the election: "There's really no way to effectively combat this kind of underhanded campaigning. You come out at a press conference and announce, `They're saying I defaulted, and it's not true.' So you publicize the charge and people start wondering if you did it or not. You can't win."
As the campaigns of 1994 proved, National Telecommunications Services' Mac Hansbrough was prophetic when he predicted in 1992 that "negative phoning will probably be used quite heavily in the next decade." Of the 45 candidates for the 104th Congress we interviewed, fully 34 (almost 80 percent) claimed that push polling was used against them. Only one, freshman Republican Representative Rob Ehrlich of Maryland, admitted using it himself. Campaign veterans claim there was an explosion of push polling in 1994. "It's existed for years, but I'm telling you it was heavy duty this cycle," says one veteran operative.
Because negative persuasion phoning tries with a brief encounter to cause the respondent's adrenaline to pump with outrage, hot-button issues are preferred. Abortion, gun control, and taxes all do the trick with the appropriate target audiences, but one of the most reliable--and apparently, relied upon--topics is homosexuality, which turned up in push polls all across America in 1994.
Most common was a focus on various Democratic congressmen's alleged support for President Clinton's attempt to let homosexuals serve openly in the U.S. military (later compromised into the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy). "The areas around a military base in my district were targeted," says former U.S. Representative Tom Barlow, Democrat of Kentucky, who lost his bid for reelection. "People got calls asking, `Do you know that Mr. Barlow is for gay rights?"'
The most extreme use of anti-gay push polling came in a number of congressional contests around the country, where heterosexual Democratic candidates were "revealed" as gay or lesbian in last-minute negative persuasion calls. These phony "outings" were true smear campaigns and may well have proved costly to their victims. According to Beth Bernard, campaign manager for Minnesota Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Ann Wynia, the "lesbian calls" came on election eve: "Would it make a difference if you knew that Ann Wynia was a lesbian?" Ohio Democratic U.S. Representative Eric Fingerhut received much the same treatment: "I'm single, and I kept getting reports about the push-polling calls that would ask anyone who said they were for me, "Would you still vote for him if you knew he was gay?' ... It happens not to be true, and my friends laughed about it. But it was a catch-22. What do you do? Do you hold a press conference and say, `I'm not gay!'?" Fingerhut did not hold the press conference. He also did not get re-elected.
When Sleaze Comes to Call
If, as former U.S. House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill once said, all politics is local, it was inevitable that push polling would be used in local election contests. And indeed it has been employed, with no holds barred.
For example, more than a dozen 1993 state legislative races in Virginia featured "lies, rumors, half-truths, smears, and gross distortions" in push polls, according to an enterprising state politics reporter who obtained actual copies of the suspect questions and who staked out the pollster's phone bank headquarters. Bob Gibson of the Charlottesville Daily Progress determined that Cooper & Secrest Associates, one of the nation's largest Democratic polling firms, directed 400 to 500 calls to registered voters in each targeted House of Delegates district, many of them asking highly misleading questions:
In Ohio, Cooper & Secrest ran a poll alleging that a Republican, Martin Hoke, had been "part of religious cult where he wore a turban, a beard, and had an assumed name." The Sikh religion, which Hoke had joined two decades earlier while a student at Amherst College, is certainly not a "cult."
As these examples make clear, negative push polling's methods and madness are limited only by the ingenuity--and devilishness--of the practitioners. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York City was the target of calls that tagged her as an opponent of rent control and stabilization. The message, naturally directed toward people who lived in rent-controlled units, was false. Oliver North, running for the Senate in Virginia, was linked to Louisiana racist David Duke by a Democratic phone bank run from Kentucky. In 1990, North had campaigned against Duke in the bayou state when Duke was himself seeking a U.S. Senate seat. Conservative Republican Mark Sanford, no fan of Clinton's, was labeled "a liberal Democrat and a friend of Bill Clinton."
But few candidates were the target of more special interests at once--from the National Rifle Association to the tobacco industry--than the late Mike Synar, the Oklahoma Democratic congressman who lost his seat in a party runoff primary in 1994. Synar told us that some of his opponents sponsored a computerized push poll in which a respondent's choice of Synar (when asked voting intentions) produced an unusual retort from a computer-automated interviewer: "Mike Synar? I can't believe you'd vote for him! He's a jerk!"