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.

Fourth, real pollsters are interested in getting information – highly reliable information. If the telephone interviewer is apparently not recording your responses, this is a good tip-off that you are dealing with a political operative, not a genuine pollster. Typically, a good phone interview takes at least 5-10 minutes, sometimes much longer. If the call lasts little more than a minute or two, that’s again usually a tip-off that the caller is not really seeking information but simply trying to influence attitudes and manipulate voter behavior.

What’s wrong with negative push polling? First, negative push polls often spread false claims about a candidate, and they do so most effectively by innuendo. Second, negative push polls lack accountability. The average voter does not know who is actually behind the claims and innuendos, so the responsible parties cannot be held accountable for their errors and misdirection. Third, negative push polling often distracts from the genuine issues in the campaign, preying on fears rather than concentrating on policies and proposals for a better future.

San Diego deserves better than negative push polls. We are emerging – or at least I hope we are emerging – from a dark period in San Diego politics, a period of mismanagement and obfuscation. We need clear, precise discussions of our city’s future and the best ways of bringing the city out of its current fiscal crisis. The mayoral race should be a contest of ideas and visions, clearly articulated and well-documented in ways that allow voters to make well-informed choices. Negative push polls distract from the real purpose of political dialogue at a time when we can ill afford such distractions.

Lawrence M. Hinman, director of the Values Institute and professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego, writes widely in the area of applied ethics. He is the founder of Ethics Updates and Ethics Videos.

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