Halloween is several days away, but political partisans are already masquerading as pollsters while they try to sway voters in Eastern Washington’s congressional race.
Voters in Spokane and Garfield counties say they have been contacted for “push polls,” a controversial campaign tactic denounced by both Rep. George Nethercutt and Democratic challenger Judy Olson.
“It’s a deceptive survey,” said Irene Beson, a Spokane Valley resident. “I recognized it right off as a fake.”
Callers start by asking standard poll questions, such as which candidate for president, governor and Congress a voter plans to support.
Beson and Bob Kelly of Pomeroy said that when they replied “Nethercutt” to a question about voting in Eastern Washington’s congressional race, the caller began asking if they knew the incumbent “voted to cut Medicare” and asked if it would change their mind.
“It’s basically the same message the AFL-CIO is running today,” said Kelly. “After two or three questions like that, they started on Olson’s campaign positions to protect seniors and Medicare and Social Security.
“Somebody must think I’m awful damn stupid. It kind of insulted my intelligence.”
Push polling - so labeled because it attempts to push voters into choosing a particular candidate - is not really true polling. It’s a campaign tactic that is sometimes used in close races to sway voters and suppress turnout.
Many candidates consider it unethical. Both Eastern Washington candidates denied any involvement in the calls.
“I’m appalled,” said Olson. “It’s not us. We wouldn’t do anything like that.”
“It’s dishonest,” said Nethercutt. “I would forbid anybody from ever doing it with my campaign.”
The questions voters said they were asked would tend to favor Olson. But the Garfield, Wash., Democrat said her campaign doesn’t have the money to spend on polls, legitimate or otherwise, when it is scrambling to buy commercials.
To be effective, the tactic requires thousands of calls in the weeks before an election to find voters who can be identified as undecided or willing to switch. That can be expensive - qualified market research firms charge $10,000 or more to survey 1,000 or fewer voters.
State Republicans tried to point the finger at groups with deeper pockets that are supporting Olson.
“It’s not us,” said Norm Kurz of the AFL-CIO, which criticized Nethercutt in a series of ads before the primary election. “It’s not something we engage in.”
“We’re not doing any polling. And we don’t do” push polling, said Jim Whitney of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to get Democrats elected to the House of Representatives.
The real danger of push polling, say political analysts, is that it can convince people not to vote by saying so many negative things about one candidate. It can backfire at times, however, by solidifying support for the candidate under attack.
Amy Johnston, an 18-year-old Eastern Washington University student, said she doesn’t plan to change her vote for Nethercutt. But she is angry at being called.
“This is my first major election, and it kind of gives you a bad taste,” Johnston said.
Many legitimate polls are conducted in the final week before an election, but if you’ve been contacted by one that seems improper, The Spokesman-Review would like to talk with you. Ask who is conducting the survey, and make note of any questions that seem biased or unusual. Then call Cityline, at 458-8800 on a Touch-Tone phone, and press 9893 to reach the Campaign ‘96 message line.