Push Polling 2008; Have the Rules Changed? Or Not?

July 4, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The campaign rhetoric between Barack Obama (D-IL), John McCain (R-AZ), Bob Barr (Libertarian Party), and Ralph Nader (Green Party) will fly fast and thick – no different from any other election year – Presidential races are like that and as the money needed to elect increases, so will the institutionalized nature of the electoral beast.

It will also ensure that the voices of tertiary parties are left silenced under the mountain of campaign fundraising achieved by the dominant 2 Party system.

Unless, of course, we see broad and sweeping electoral reform and serious transparency in practice. And again, it’s a classic Joseph Heller Catch 22 situation; more money means access to more money, ensuring the status quo never be budged.

In the meantime, many questions emerge about how election campaigning away from the podium and glare of the big-money media machines will be conducted. It’s much harder to hold a candidates’ feet to the fire when a campaign becomes plagued with allegations of underhandedness and inuendo away from the cameras.

While John McCain is certainly no shining example of rhetorical consistency (from referring to Falwell and Roberston as “agents of intolerance” in 2000 to almost sycophantic, backpedalling deference in 2006/7 in an attempt to secure their endorsements), Barack Obama has set high standards for his own campaign and may have painted himself in a corner by doing so.

And this issue emerges in the ethically malleable underbelly of such things as phone bank campaigning and push polling tactics, surrogates, and the ever present 527’s.

Sadly Barack Obama’s campaign may be busy pushing that ethical envelope at this very minute. In another city and from another country. By this we mean outsourced Push Polling.

What IS Push Polling?

After certain allegations emerged in 2000’s Republican South Carolina primary, some definition was required for voters who may have have almost certainly been exposed to it in the past but had no idea what it was that they had been exposed to. Campaign staffers from both the McCain and GW Bush camps we not inclined to let the matter ride.

CNN, defining Push Polling in thier Feb 10th, 2000 All Politics campaign coverage, said that “Push-polling” refers to a practice where callers represent themselves as a non-partisan member of a polling organization, then provide negative information about a candidate in an effort to discourage voting.”

More accurately however, Kathy Frankovic, Director of Surveys for CBS News, explains that’ “Fundamentally, what people label a push poll isn’t a poll at all. A push poll is political telemarketing masquerading as a poll. No one is really collecting information. No one will analyze the data. You can tell a push poll because it is very short, even too short. (It has to be very short to reach tens of thousands of potential voters, one by one). It will not include any demographic questions. The “interviewer” will sometimes ask to speak to a specific voter by name. And, of course, a push poll will contain negative information – sometimes truthful, sometimes not – about the opponent.”

By their very nature, this style of polling, which isn’t really polling, essentially misleads the respondent and subtly damages the image of intended victim and/or party.

Some license-taking push polling has emerged as recently as 2006. In a race for retiring Sen. Bill Frist’s (R-TN) seat, Rep. Harry Ford Jr (D-TN) faced former Chatanooga Mayor Republican Bob Corker. Corker, using subtle (or overt, depending on one’s definition) racism in questions (ie: his visiting a Playboy Ranch), not to mention the jaw-dropping anti-Ford Jr. TV ads (ie:pretend blonde bimbo:”Harry! Call me.” as she mimes a possible future cell phone communique intimating a tryst).

Even former Republican Senator from Maine, Bill Cohen, expressed to CNN that the GOP sponsored TV spot was “a very serious appeal to a racist sentiment.”

And of course, it doesn’t take much to understand how ‘Swift Boating’ became part of the popular lexicon.

As history shows, if a campaign can cripple a voter’s faith in a candidate, it can undermine that candidate’s likelihood in recieving their vote. And that is the basic method to the madness.

But it takes a cursory look at the GOP’s 2000 primary race to understand where the modern regimen of Push Polling grew, well fertilized (manured) by pol-operatives.

Richard Davis, a campaign organizer for Senator McCain’s run against G.W. Bush recounted for the Boston Globe in a pre-campaign Op Ed piece dated Mar.21,2004, that “Anonymous opponents used “push polling” to suggest that McCain’s Bangladeshi born daughter was his own, illegitimate black child'”

The McCain campaign, riding high on a 19 point win over Bush in New Hampshire, found an agressive adversary in thier main opponent.

“What followed was a primary campaign that would make history for its negativity”, Davis remembers. With few substantive differences between Bush and McCain, the campaign was bound to turn personal. The situation was ripe for a smear.” Certainly some deja vu to be considered in the recent Obama-Clinton battle royale!

The bottom line? A question asked of race-sensitive South Carolinian voters:”Would you vote for someone who fathered an illegitimate black child ?” If you guessed that Karl Rove had something to with the strategy in question, you wouldn’t be wrong. That Rove was dismissed from Bush Sr.’s says something for Father George. That Bush Jr. loves Rove as his “Turd Blossom” says nothing for the son.

Davis continues in his op ed piece, ” In the conservative, race-conscious South, that’s [a black illegitimate child] not a minor charge. We had no idea who made the phone calls, who paid for them, or how many calls were made. Effective and anonymous: the perfect smear campaign.”

More importantly, Davis notes “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.”

That’s almost a political aphorism these days. With the modern, well funded campaign machine, “attack response” teams are de riguer. Obama has gone so far as to employ a team and a website/media component to deal with echo chamber allegations that he is a “secret Muslim” and attacks on his patriotism.

Something that becomes an even more pressing issue than ever, and that’s the responsibility of the media to not allow these various allegations to go unchecked once, twice, and a third time at least. To paraphrase Bill Moyers’ recent appearance at the NCMR (National Conference on Media Reform) that occured in Minneapolis, MN this past June 6-8, it’s ‘incumbent on the 4th column to not become the Filth Column’.

Davis concluded in his op ed that these strategies that cheapen the democratic process need to be addressed by the candidates themselves in a top-down fashion.

“The only way to stop the expected mud-slinging in 2004 is for both President Bush and Senator Kerry to publicly order their supporters not to go there. But if they do, their behavior would be the exception, not the rule.”

But that was 2004, and we are all to painfully aware of what has continued as business-as-usual.

Maybe Obama’s supporters can “be the change we’ve been waiting for” by making these standards the new norm, – in the process have people reveal distasteful and unfair tactics that could emerge from the McCain camp. At the very least it would differentiate Obama from McCain and further illustrate that a McCain administration could be an extension of the Bush policies.

But that means Obama needs to look into the script and the cheaper allegations Obama would have voters possibly believe.

Sven Eric Balabanoff Writes for http://globalpundit.org/

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This post was written by Sven Eric Balabanoff

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