Help, I've been push polled and I can't get up! During this final week before Election Day, the usual hue and cry has been raised about automated phone calls interrupting the dinner hour. The robotic voices ask questions as if they're conducting a genuine political survey but then deliver talking points favorable to the Republican candidate. (Democrats are no doubt using similar tactics but haven't been caught doing it as flagrantly yet.)
Push polling uses the objective, scientific language of regular polling to trick voters. If done well, a voter thinks the information contained in a question is a nonpartisan fact when it is any thing but. Good push polling is deeply insidious. But the bad push polling that's going on right now is more pathetic than sinister. As any smart trick-or-treater knows, your mask has to look real to scare anyone. I listened to a recording of one of the calls by Common Sense Tennessee to help out Bob Corker's senate campaign: It was laughably bad and devoid of authority. Political attacks don't have to be sophisticated to be powerful, but there's nothing in the execution or the message of this poll that achieves anything approaching political art. Anyone capable of seeing through the claims of a late-night infomercial won't be swayed.
What surprises me is that at least one person involved in the process should know better. Nathan Estruth, who is listed as a spokesman for Common Sense 2006, boasts on his Web site that he has been with Procter & Gamble for 15 years and is now general manager of new business development. Procter & Gamble built a multibillion-dollar business making people buy things they don't need. But none of that skill is evident in the poll call in the Tennessee, Maryland, or Montana Senate campaigns. Common Sense's polls deliver standard-issue claims on abortion and tax cuts—there's nothing like the muck Bush supporters spread about John McCain in South Carolina in 2000. A whisper campaign is meaningless if what you're whispering is banal.
Would you prefer to have your taxes not raised and, if possible, cut?
Fact: Bob Corker is committed to making the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 permanent.
Fact: Harold Ford has voted to raise taxes more than 78 times during his 10 years in Washington and voted against extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.
Do you believe that foreign terrorists should have the same legal rights and privileges as American citizens?
Fact: Harold Ford Jr. voted against the recommendations of the 9/11 commission and voted against the Patriot Act, which treats terrorists as terrorists.
Bob Corker supports renewal of the Patriot Act and how it would treat terrorists.
On the question of abortion: Do you consider yourself to be pro-life?
Fact: Harold Ford Jr. repeatedly voted to use tax dollars to pay for abortions in the United States and foreign countries.
Fact: Bob Corker opposes abortion and opposes using tax dollars to fund abortions.
Are the calls meant to be deceitful? Sure, but to be effective (and warrant our genuine outrage), they have to hide the deceit far better than they do. They achieve no higher level of deceit than everyday politics. When a politician heralds his "good friend" in the audience to make it seem like he's got local ties to the city he's visiting, it's not likely they're friends at all. Those hand-painted signs at rallies are not real symbols of dedication. In the history of politics, no civilian has ever been so moved by a candidate that he stayed up in the garage to paint "I (heart) George Allen" on a placard. The signs are mass-produced by campaign workers and then handed out at rallies. When a politician writes on his blog or campaign diary, we know it's not a genuine act of communication but a hidden press release. Town halls are rarely genuine exchanges but instead scripted colloquies between candidates and their planted admirers. (President Bush achieved such a high level of inauthenticity in the exchanges with voters at his town-hall meetings, I wondered whether you needed a SAG card to attend some of his events.)
The push polls suggest desperation. Many of the reports of such calls in the Maryland Senate race come from deeply liberal portions of the state. I thought campaigns were getting better at targeting voters precisely. That's what Bush's pollster, Matthew Dowd's, recent book is all about, but the push pollers—who are ostensibly independent operators—are not targeting in the way he suggests. My bet is that the push polls are as effective as hurling fistfuls of leaflets from your car window. We'll see after Election Day whether the races targeted with these appeals show an increase in Republican turnout, and whether these techniques contributed to that. But early signs are that indiscriminate calling is firing up Republican opponents.
It's not great that so much of the campaign process has become so phony, but to get overexercised about these push polls diminishes those parts of the process that actually deserve our genuine outrage. If we want to get really steamed, we should focus our attention on genuine, professional polling, which has done far more to undermine the political process than any of these fake last-minute attempts. Pollsters measure voters' every reaction, and then politicians and their advisers shape their words and policies to meet the mood of the moment. Pundits (like, um, me) use polls to pronounce immediate judgment on policies before they're actually born. Push polls are just a last-minute outrage. Regular polls damage the entire campaign.