Thursday, August 26, 2010

 

It's not a push poll: version 5,024

The words "public" and "house poll" are usually not put together in a sentence. Often, those trying to dissect individual house races are forced to rely upon polls done by partisan interest groups, political parties, or candidates. One possible problem with partisan polls is that the sponsors may try to ask questions and present the results in a manner most benefitting the client. In Kentucky's third district, Republican Todd Lally earlier this summer accused his opponent's (Rep. John Yarmuth) pollster Cooper & Secrest of "cultivat[ing] a reputation as Democratic push-pollster in a number of districts across the country. Most recently, Coopers & Secrest was accused of attacking Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2007 for being Catholic. Such allegations have surfaced in other areas as well. In Ohio, Coopers & Secrest alleged in their polling that Republican Martin Hoke was a member of a cult." Lally "call[ed] on John Yarmuth to immediately make all polling scripts from his campaign available to the public." While Lally has reason to attack a poll that showed him trailing by 26%, I wondered whether Cooper & Secrest really had previously engaged in push polling.

A search of the Google archives reveals no news source actually reporting a push poll by Cooper & Secrest in the 2007 Louisiana Gubernatorial Election. The only article mentioning Cooper & Secrest and push poll in that election is a campaign memo released by the Jindal campaign. The push poll question allegedly asked by Cooper & Secrest was "Bobby Jindal wrote articles for a Catholic magazine against Protestants...Would this lead you to believe that he, as governor, would prevent Protestants from practicing their religion?" While that may seem like a "smear" (and I most definitely do not condone spreading even half-truths), it turned out that the substance of the question was at least legitimate enough for two major Democratic candidates for governor to not call for the removal of an advertisement telling voters about Jindal's articles. In addition, a 2007 Associated Press article did not say the ad was untrue, only that Jindal's position was more "nuanced than the ad suggests". But beyond whether or not Cooper & Secrest was spreading a misrepresentation, no one was able to determine how many voters Cooper & Secrest called with its question. Why is that important?

As Mark Blumenthal has pointed out, push polls are meant to reach tens or even hundreds of thousands of voters. Stu Rothenberg notes "hiring a firm to do 500 or 800 advocacy calls in a Congressional district or state — where thousands or tens of thousands or even millions of voters are going to go to the polls — would be idiotic, since it wouldn’t accomplish what advocacy calls are trying to do, which is change opinion." The problem with the charge that Cooper & Secrest conducted a push poll is that they use live interviewers, who would take forever to reach 10,000 people in a Congressional district. Something especially difficult considering that Cooper & Secrest asked numerous questions, according to the Jindal memo. The question seemed to be designed to test an attack for future use in campaign messaging, which would make a lot of sense considering that questioning Jindal's position on faith was used in campaign ads. In other words, there's little proof that this inquiry meets any definition of a "push poll".

The case of Martin Hoke is a little more interesting, but far more clear. For those that do not remember, Hoke was a Republican Congressman in Ohio in the mid 90's who in his youth practiced Sikhism. Cooper & Secrest ran a poll in which one question mentioned that Hoke was "part of religious cult where he wore a turban, a beard, and had an assumed name." No sane person would call Sikhism a cult, so the use of that word was untruthful. The issue with calling this a push poll is that the Washington Monthly article in which the story of the Hoke (as well as few other instances of possible Cooper & Secrest) "push poll(s)" appeared reveals that only 400 to 500 received the poll. As mentioned, no person wanting to push poll calls so few people. Even if Cooper & Secrest was asking "highly misleading" questions, they were not trying to spread misinformation. Rather, it would seem that they were testing messages for a campaign. And while the questions may seem unfair, politics is many times dirty and half truths are spread like wild fire.

The fact of the matter is that there is no proof that Cooper & Secrest has done anything out of the ordinary for a campaign pollster. And in the case of Kentucky's 3rd district, not only was Cooper & Secrest's poll done only among 566 voters, but a public Braun Research poll arrived at the same conclusion as Cooper & Secrest's 20%+ Yarmuth lead.

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