There are anecdotal reports that the Colbert Busch-Sanford race in South Carolina just took a nasty turn, with pollsters calling voters to insinuate that Elizabeth Colbert Busch, among other things, had an abortion. For some reason South Carolina seems to be a hotbed for such allegations — though it's far from certain that any widespread smear actually happened.
ThinkProgress spoke with two women in the state, each of whom said they'd gotten a call from someone claiming to be conducting a poll on next Tuesday's race. Among the questions that one woman, April Wolford, said she received were the following:
- What would you think of Elizabeth Colbert Busch if I told you she had had an abortion?
- What would you think of Elizabeth Colbert Busch if I told you a judge held her in contempt of court at her divorce proceedings?
- What would you think of Elizabeth Colbert Busch if she had done jail time?
And so on. It's worth clarifying at this point: There have been no reports that any of these things actually happened to Colbert Busch. That's the nature of what's called push polling. Push polls aren't actually polls at all; rather, they're attempts to negatively influence voters and/or introduce scurrilous rumors into the political conversation. In 2009, Kathy Frankovic, CBS News' Director of Surveys, outlined how such polls work.
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.
That scale is key: In order for the push poll to be effective, it needs to reach a large percentage of a specific voting population. The poll described by Wolford seems longer than such a poll would usually be. And Wolford is a suggestive target for such an effort. ThinkProgress describes her as "a middle-aged woman who has long been active in Democratic politics in the state." A recent poll conducted by Public Policy Polling indicates that Wolford is in the group of people most likely to vote for Colbert Busch. Women prefer her 51 percent - 41; Democrats, 97 - 7; people aged 46 to 65, 57 - 35. Clearly, such a poll is unlikely to convince Wolford to vote for Sanford. But it might compel her to not vote at all. If that's the goal, it's an attempt at voter suppression — and would indicate that a lot more people matching Wolford's demographics got similar calls.
There is another possibility: It could have been a regular (albeit sloppy) poll. Frankovic makes that case, too:
A lot of the push poll complaints that come to the attention of organizations like the National Council on Public Polls and the American Association for Public Opinion Research are complaints about real candidate polls. The complaints are about the tone and the truthfulness of the questions that are asked.
Most polls ask negative question about opponents. One of the goals of polling is to see what arguments against an opponent resonate with voters. It's a distinction that often gets blurry — and can sometimes be intentionally blurred.
During the 2000 presidential primaries, South Carolina first gained a reputation as a hotbed for push polls. The campaign of John McCain, then vying for the Republican nomination against George W. Bush claimed that Bush or his allies launched a push poll suggesting that McCain fathered a biracial baby out of wedlock. McCain's 2000 campaign manager, Richard Davis, wrote about the poll in 2004.
Anonymous opponents used "push polling" to suggest that McCain's Bangladeshi born daughter was his own, illegitimate black child. In push polling, a voter gets a call, ostensibly from a polling company, asking which candidate the voter supports. In this case, if the "pollster" determined that the person was a McCain supporter, he made statements designed to create doubt about the senator.
Thus, the "pollsters" asked McCain supporters if they would be more or less likely to vote for McCain if they knew he had fathered an illegitimate child who was black. In the conservative, race-conscious South, that's 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.
As Davis notes, anonymity is a key component of such efforts. Wolford says that she was told the Colbert Busch poll was performed by "SSI Polling;" no such firm turns up in a Google search. If Bush allies were behind a push poll in 2000, it's unlikely that they would have done so under the aegis of the campaign. When, last year, Republican operatives sent thousands of push-poll-like, anti-Obama text messages to voters around DC, the group behind it was only tripped up by reporters tracking domains associated with the messages.
There are a few other possibilities in the most recent example in South Carolina. The first is that Wolford was somehow mistaken about the call, or is misrepresenting what happened. Another is that this is part of some sophisticated double-cross, trying to smear Sanford by implying he's smearing his opponent.
The last option is that the firm only called a few, prominent people, in hopes that the media would pick up the story and spread the allegations contained within the questions. If that was their strategy: so far, so good.