February 14, 2000


Calls to Voters at Center Stage in G.O.P. Race


HOUSTON, Feb. 13 -- Nearly 1,000 miles from South Carolina and the bitter political war between George W. Bush and John McCain, one flank of that war is being fought from a four-story office building in the northern suburbs of this city.

On the top floor, in the offices of the Voter/Consumer Research Consumer, a few dozen people, college students to grandmothers, spent two days last week calling prospective voters in South Carolina to ask them carefully scripted questions. They began innocuously enough: Will you participate in the Republican primary? How much attention have you paid to the Republican race? Are things better or worse in the country?


The Bush Poll

Following are some of the questions that Voter/Consumer Research, a company hired by the Bush campaign, has posed to voters in South Carolina. The information was provided by the campaign.

Q. Here are three points people have made about John McCain's position on taxes. Please tell me for each these whether you strongly approve, somewhat approve, somewhat disapprove or strongly disapprove.

a) John McCain's plan does not cut tax rates for 71 percent of all taxpayers.

b) John McCain's plan will increase taxes on charitable contributions to churches, colleges and charities by $20 billion.

c) John McCain says he never voted for a tax increase, but he wrote legislation that proposed the largest tax increase in United States history.

Q. Here are some points regarding John McCain's record on campaign finance reform. Again please tell me whether you strongly approve, somewhat approve, somewhat disapprove or strongly disapprove.

a) He has written legislation that would use taxpayer dollars to pay for political campaigns.

b) He was reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee for intervening with the federal regulators who were investigating Charles Keating, one of his campaign contributors who went to jail for bank fraud in the Savings and Loan scandal.

Q. John McCain calls the campaign finance system corrupt, but as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, he raises money and travels on the private jets of corporations with legislative proposals before his committee. In view of this are you much more likely to vote for him, somewhat more likely to vote for him, somewhat more likely to vote against him or much more likely to vote against him?

Q. John McCain's campaign finance proposals would give labor unions and the media a bigger influence on the outcome of elections. Again, in view of this are you much more likely to vote for him, somewhat more likely to vote for him, somewhat more likely to vote against him or much more likely to vote against him?


But the questions quickly shifted to Senator McCain of Arizona, and the tone changed: In introducing questions, the callers stated that Mr. McCain's tax plan would not cut rates for most people, that he had been reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee and that his campaign finance proposals would give unions and the press more influence in deciding elections.

What kind of poll is this? One written by the Bush campaign. The people conducting it were not starry-eyed campaign volunteers, but were paid by the hour, not much more than minimum wage. Bush campaign officials, however, say this poll is not an attack on Mr. McCain but is typical of the sort of polling done to learn about issues and their opponents' possible weaknesses.

In an increasingly nasty primary in which each candidate has blamed the other for the nastiness, the usually obscure role of telephone canvassing and polling has unexpectedly become a central issue as hundreds of thousands of calls pour down on voters in South Carolina. Mr. McCain has complained that Governor Bush of Texas and his supporters are conducting a thinly disguised telephone smear campaign, a charge Mr. Bush vehemently denies.

Mr. McCain has accused the Bush polling operation of spreading negative information about Mr. McCain, rather than truly trying to survey South Carolina voters. Such polling -- in which pollsters give the impression that they are conducting a real poll, when they are actually posing questions that spread doubts about the opponent -- is known as "push-polling." The accusation has put Mr. Bush on the defensive.

"It is just ridiculous, it is unbelievable, this whole kind of thing about, you know, Bush is push-polling, and we're not," Mr. Bush told host Tim Russert today on "Meet the Press." "We're the one campaign, Tim, that has said, 'You're welcome to look at any phone script that we pay for.' "

Ari Fleischer, a Bush spokesman, said the Bush campaign does two different types of telephone work.

The calls made from Houston are for small polls and surveys. But a Phoenix company handled the 200,000 pro-Bush advocacy calls made into South Carolina. Those advocacy calls are short, punchy statements designed to win support for Mr. Bush. In one, used last week, the script essentially blames Mr. McCain for the negative tenor of the race, and then asks if the respondent would vote for Mr. Bush.

By contrast, the McCain questioning in South Carolina, conducted by a firm called Public Opinion Strategies, appears intended only to gauge support for the Republican contenders, and to determine which issues resonate with voters, and whether they regard themselves as conservative or liberal. A copy of the questionnaire was provided by the McCain organization and it does not include any questions or comments that attack Mr. Bush.

While the McCain polling continues, the campaign has stopped paid advocacy calls because it has hit its spending limits in South Carolina. Officials say they will ask volunteers to start making get-out-the-vote calls this week, with reporters invited to watch.

The issue burst into public last week when a woman at a McCain rally said her teenage son answered the phone and heard Mr. McCain called a liar, a cheat and a fraud. Then Marsha White, the wife of the mayor of Greenville, a McCain supporter, said she had gotten a similar call.

"We've gotten a couple of hundred calls in our office from people who say they've gotten these calls," said Mr. McCain's spokesman, Howard Opinsky.

But Mr. Fleischer said no such calls have been made by the Bush campaign. To prove his point, today he released the script from the poll conducted by Voter/Consumer Research, the group that is working from the Houston office building.

Mr. Fleischer emphasized that this script was different from the advocacy calls. He said the tone of the questions is a standard research technique, and he noted that the survey was limited to 300 respondents. He also said that none of the questions refer to Mr. McCain as a liar or a fraud, as some people who received calls in South Carolina have said.

Unlike push-polling, which targets thousands of people, Mr. Fleischer said the Voter/Consumer Research survey was specifically designed to determine which issues resonated with voters in South Carolina. He said the campaign might use its findings to create commercials. These, presumably, would be aimed at whatever those surveyed mentioned as Mr. McCain's weaknesses.

"Surveys gather research," Mr. Fleischer said, noting the small size of the survey would preclude it from influencing many voters. "Surveys are meant to figure out what people are thinking." He added, "Push polls are taken with hundreds of thousands of people, or tens of thousands of people."

Kathleen Frankovic, the director of surveys for CBS News, reviewed the questions from the Bush campaign survey over the telephone, and though she did not know whether the assertions made about Mr. McCain were true, she described the survey as "fairly common" and "not unusual." She said campaigns use partisan polling to test attack lines much the same way marketers poll people to try out new slogans for products.

By contrast to the long, detailed questions, she said push polls are usually short and punchy in order to reach as many people as possible.

Mr. Opinsky described the wording of several questions in the Bush survey as inaccurate. He said Mr. McCain's tax plan provides cuts for people in every income bracket, and he said the senator was never reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee.

Mr. Fleischer said the questions were accurate. He also said some Bush supporters had received what he described as push-poll phone calls against the Texas governor. One supporter provided by the Bush campaign is Earl Capps, a part-time Republican consultant in South Carolina who is also volunteering for Mr. Bush. He said in an interview that he got such a call, with the caller saying that Mr. Bush used political connections to avoid military service in Vietnam.

Michael W. Traugott, president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, an organization of commercial, political and academic pollsters, said that push-polling was designed to accomplish one of two things: Either convince people to change from one candidate to another, or tarnish an opponent's reputation in hopes of reducing the number of people who will vote for him.

"There are deleterious and invidious affects to this," said Mr. Traugott, who also teaches at the University of Michigan. "This is an unpleasant experience for most citizens, and we think it increases their cynicism about politics and politicians."

As for the type of calls made by the Bush campaign, Mr. Traugott said, "There's a very thin line between advocacy calling, where you have people calling around to promote your candidacy, as opposed to negative persuasion telephoning, which is designed to move you away from another candidate."

One unknown quantity in evaluating the use of polls is that a number of calls are being made on behalf of candidates by organizations other than the two campaigns. Published reports have suggested that groups like the National Right to Life Committee, as well as pro-tobacco organizations, are planning to make calls in South Carolina on behalf of Mr. Bush. Mr. Bush has said he did not know what other organizations were doing, and he has promised to fire anyone from his campaign if they are involved in push-polling.

Here in Houston, it is almost impossible to notice that the bland brick building not far from a shopping center is actually a nerve center in the presidential race. Mr. Bush first hired Voter/Consumer Research as governor, and the company now operates phone banks north of the city. Some of its customers are companies interested in testing opinion.

But one employee said that political races were dominating business now, particularly the South Carolina primary. Inside, employees sit in front of computer screens, earning an hourly rate to ask the same questions over and over again. One woman said the average rate was $6 an hour. According to employees, every conversation is monitored electronically to ensure that callers do not stray off the subject.

Last week, one employee said, supervisors warned the staff against speaking to reporters. One woman said that Mr. McCain was not the only object of polling. She said she had spent time asking voters about Vice President Al Gore. One of the questions, she said, asked for opinions on Mr. Gore's now retracted claim that he invented the Internet.

The woman laughed and described the process as "mudslinging."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company