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Disreputable Push-Polling Comes to New Mexico's First Congressional District

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My wife brought me the phone. She said it was a particularly "desperate" poll-taker, needing just five minutes from the man of the house. My wife has a soft heart, of which I am sometimes also the beneficiary, so I took the call. What's five minutes, even if it is the ninth inning of the seventh game of the Mets/Cardinals series. I put the game on mute, and I greeted the poll-taker.

He asked me some straight-forward questions.

How likely am I to vote? Which of the following options best summarizes my view on what our policy in Iraq ought to be? Do I have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the two candidates for the House of Representatives from my district? (Ours is, by the way, one of a dozen or so districts in the nation identified from the outset as a major battleground in the contest for control of the House in the next session of Congress.)

I expect my answer to that last question determined where things went next. I indicated a moral favorable opinion of the Democrat, Patsy Madrid, than of the Republican, Heather Wilson.

The man on the other end of the line then told me that he was going to ask me a few questions of a "hypothetical nature." He wanted to know if the following statements would, hypothetically, make me more likely or less likely to vote for the candidate referred to in the statement.

The first statement was rather long, but it could be summarized thus: "If you knew that Patsy Madrid opposed the renewal of the U.S. Patriot Act, which gives the government the tools necessary to protect the American people from attack by terrorists, and so she would cripple the ability of the United States to defend itself, how would that affect your likelihood of voting for Patsy Madrid?"

I wondered at this point if the poll was trying to assess the effects of certain kinds of inflammatory statements on people's attitudes. What I told the poll-taker was, "If I heard such a statement, all it would do is make me think that whoever said it was stupid, because it's a stupid statement. It wouldn't make me any more or less likely to vote for Patsy Madrid."

The second statement was, essentially, this: "If you knew that Patsy Madrid were in favor of cutting and running in Iraq, before the job is done, and that she opposes staying there and creating a stable regime so that the Iraqi people can have a stable democracy they can operate and defend for themselves, how would that affect your likelihood of voting for Patsy Madrid?"

Once again, I answered by saying that the statement would only affect my opinion of whoever made it, because the premise of the statement so totally misstates our real options in Iraq, and would not affect my vote in the election one way or the other.

At this point, I was expecting that the poll-taker was going to give me some equally outrageous and propagandistic statements at the expense of the Republican candidate and incumbent, Heather Wilson, to see how those would impact me. But, no-the next thing he said was he wanted a bit of demographic information about me.

Maybe I'm slow on the uptake, but it was only when he turned to get my demographics that I realized what was going on here.

"Now I know what you're doing," I told the guy. "It's called 'push-polling,' and it's fundamentally dishonest. Under the guise of asking people's opinions you're just trying to poison their minds against a particular candidate. Let me ask you a question: Do you understand what you're doing?"

"I'm just doing my job," he said.

"I know you're doing your job," I said, "but do you understand how sleazy your job is?"

"I refuse to answer your question," was his reply. And I said that I was through answering his questions as well.

Wikipedia says of push-polls that they are a political campaign in which an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of respondents under the guise of conducting a poll." Their main advantage "is that they are an effective way of maligning an opponent ('pushing' voters away) while avoiding responsibility for the distorted or false information used in the push poll."

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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