Andrew Malcolm of the Los Angeles Times reports evidence of a pro-Clinton "push poll" in California, or as he defines it, "malicious political virus that is designed not to elicit answers but to spread positive information about one candidate and negative information about all others under the guise of an honest poll."
His definition is right, but does the call in question meet it? Malcolm's source, a former local television news director named Ed Coghlan, describes a call from "a pollster who wanted to ask registered independents like Coghlan a few questions about the presidential race." The survey tested reactions to statements about Hillary Clinton and negative statements about Barack Obama, John Edwards and John McCain:
Coghlan said he was offended by such underhanded tactics and knew he was going to get out a warning about this dirty trick, but he said he played along for the full 20-minute "poll."
That last bit of information tells me that this call was almost certainly a message testing survey, and not a so-called "push poll." California has over 15 million registered voters, and roughly three million of those are independents. If "someone" was paying "to spread this material phone call by phone call among independent voters," would they really spend 20 minutes on the telephone with each one?
The call that Coghlan describes sounds more like a message testing survey that included many negative messages about Clinton's opponents. In other words, someone called a random sample of voters with the intent to "elicit answers," or more specifically reactions, to negative messages that the Clinton campaign or an allied group considered airing in California.
Negative campaign messages may be offensive, unfair or untrue, and it would certainly be reasonable to question the Clinton campaign on the fairness or truthfulness of the messages tested in this call. Legitimate message testing surveys sometimes cross ethical lines, especially when they raise explosive topics that candidates are unwilling to discuss openly (see the controversy over the calls in New Hampshire and Iowa that tested negative messages about the Mitt Romney's religion).
In this case, however, the only specific negative message that Coughlin reports is the attack on Barack Obama for his "present" votes in the Illinois legislature. Both Clinton and Edwards raised that issue openly in the South Carolina debate.
So far, at least, Malcolm's claim to have uncovered a "malicious political virus" operating "under the guise of an honest poll" is not supported by the facts reported.
For further reading: We have discussed the distinction between so-called "push polls" and message testing many times. Most relevant are my comments on the distinction between "push polls" and message testing here and here a well as those by Stu Rothenberg, Republican pollster Neil Newhouse and the statement from the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR).
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