The push poll: a campaign tactic of ill repute that disguises an attack ad as a legitimate phone poll, with the intent of influencing a large number of voters. The questions will start out innocently enough, but before long they become clearly skewed against one candidate. For example: “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Congressman Johnson if you knew that he hated puppies?” Even when the allegations are more grounded in fact, the ploy is still considered pretty sleazy, which is why, though actually quite common, politicians never admit to them. But legitimate campaign-message testing on a small number of respondents can also be confused for push-polling. Without knowing the specifics of the calls, it can be difficult to discern which category they fall into. And it’s in this gray area that the Bloomberg campaign finds itself this morning, after being accused of push-polling Congressman Anthony Weiner.
Voters started getting calls around mid-March that highlighted Weiner’s lobbyist connections and “association with European models,” among other things. The Times confirms that the Bloomberg campaign was responsible, but spokesman Howard Wolfson “denied that the campaign had engaged in any push-polling.” But this is hardly the first time the Bloomberg campaign toed the line, making its denials this time, at the very least, a little more suspect.
You’d only have to go back to the last mayoral election, in 2005, to find a similar allegation. Democratic candidate Freddy Ferrer claimed that Bloomberg was behind calls that mentioned Ferrer’s “flip-flops” on abortion and the death penalty and said he had friends being investigated for corruption. At least one caller also “made statements favorable to Mr. Bloomberg.” Asked about the calls at the time, Bloomberg spokesman Stu Loeser asserted, “We don’t do push-polling.”
And again, during the previous election, in 2001, Bloomberg’s Republican primary opponent, Herman Badillo, lashed out at the “dirty” push polls ostensibly conducted by polling firm Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates. Those calls mentioned that “Mr. Badillo had lost elections in the last three decades and that he represented the past.” Bloomberg’s campaign confirmed that the firm was working for them, but strategist Bill Cunningham claimed, “We are not doing push polls. Period. If somebody feels they were pushed, it ain’t us.”
Three campaigns. Three allegations of push-polling. Mathematicians refer to this as a pattern. But are Badillo, Ferrer, and now Weiner, plus the media, simply crying wolf over Bloomberg’s small-scale message-testing calls, as Gawker contends? Maybe. After all, in Weiner’s case, it doesn’t make much sense for Bloomberg to try to sway a few hundred voters so early in the game. More likely, though, Bloomberg is trying to toe the line once again to remind the congressman of the kind of battle he’ll face if he decides, after all, to enter the mayoral race for real. This reads more like a gentle nudge for him to get out of the race, for good. Just don’t call it a “push.”