Wednesday, June 15, 2005 | It should be no surprise that we are already hearing allegations about unethical negative advertising – negative push polls – in the current mayoral campaign, but our lack of surprise should not give way to complacency about such practices.
Negative push polls are an insidious form of political manipulation. Although they masquerade as pollsters, those who conduct these kinds of polls are usually far less interested in obtaining information about voter attitudes than influencing those attitudes. Under the guise of conducting a poll, telephone operatives will ask questions of the form, “If you knew that candidate X was under investigation for embezzling funds in a previous job, would this affect your attitude toward the candidate?” Of course, the phone interviewers do not actually assert that the candidate was under investigation; they just ask a hypothetical question.
Is it ever legitimate to ask such negative questions? Of course. Candidates have a legitimate interest in knowing what the voters perceive potential liabilities to be, both for themselves and for their opponents. But there are several ways of telling whether such polls are legitimate research or covert smear campaigns.
First, legitimate pollsters should always reveal the name of their company and, if asked, who is financing the research. If you receive a call from pollsters who are unwilling to disclose their company name or reveal who is financing the poll, it is highly unlikely that this is a real poll. It is particularly important to know which candidate is financing the poll, since often candidates conceal their participation through the creation of apparently-independent political action committees.
Second, if such polls ask negative questions about several candidates and positive questions about one candidate, the so-called poll is probably a negative advertising campaign in support of that one candidate and against all the others.
Third, legitimate pollsters seek to interview a small but representative sample of the population they are studying. If the so-called pollsters are calling a large and indiscriminate population, they probably are not really pollsters but negative campaigners in disguise.