Push polling: An expensive marketing tool, not a poll

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Guest Column/Xandra Kayden, Ethics consultant

Just in case you are one of the few people in town who hasn’t been called by the “pollster,” and having heard complaints from several people being polled and getting a tape of what is being said, I think more information is in order about why this push poll is misleading and how its goal is to influence your views by using a method we associate with a tool for gaining understanding.

A poll is a sample of how the target population in general feels about things. Accuracy depends on how the sample is drawn: age, gender, income level, education, etc. Much of this is already known because census tract data and other sophisticated sources of information are readily available. Many pollsters use random telephone dialing to identify the calls they need to fill up an appropriate cell within the sample they are looking for (women under 45, men under 30, etc). If a marketer calls you, the first questions will be about your age, head of household, gender, etc. If you aren’t what they need, they thank you and hang up.

Questions of age and time living in Malibu came almost 20 minutes later at the end of the call on the poll that was conducted here recently. This poll starts with questions on what would make a candidate appealing: someone with strong feelings about the city, with the experience to manage and negotiate with developers; strongly endorsed by the group that opposed the development agreement; wants to preserve Malibu’s rural character; and “restore integrity to the city council and solve the problems it has created over the past four years.” Now, that should give you a hint of where the poll is heading.

A legitimate poll would ask the questions in a neutral manner so as not to bias the response. “Do you think the city council has demonstrated integrity, is lacking in integrity, or do you have no opinion?” Or, “How would you rank the council’s integrity on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 as the lowest and 5 as the highest level of integrity?”

There are questions relating to Ozzie Silna, who apparently paid for the poll, according to a report by Jonathan Friedman in last week’s issue of The Malibu Times: whether or not you support his candidates would be of concern to you if you knew that “they are backed by Ozzie Silna.” Similar questions are repeated three more times, perhaps as a protection against charges of bias.

Then the poll turns to Jeff Jennings and Ken Kearsley, noting that they supported Measure M and the Malibu Bay Co. Development Agreement-but in the lists of what concerns you the most, such questions as getting nothing done on issues of traffic, creating ball fields for kids, cleaning up pollution in Malibu Creek-they are constantly engaged in “bickering and personal attacks with those who disagree with them” and they “hired Christi Hogin after she had been fired by a previous city council and are paying her law firm more than $1 million a year in tax dollars.” A point city financial reports would not sustain.

The thematic questions are repeated several more times: “wastes too much money, spends too much time bickering and on personal attacks, and has done little to control traffic and build ball fields.” You learn that the challengers opposed Measure M, are backed by Silna, and want to preserve the rural character of Malibu; and that the incumbents supported Measure M, the Malibu Bay Company, got nothing done, and are constantly engaging in bickering and personal attacks. It is designed to pull you toward the challengers and push you away from the incumbents. It is an expensive campaign-marketing tool. It is not a poll.

Political marketing is an art. There is nothing illegal with pretending to be something it isn’t, such as a poll. It is a clever ploy and, technically, it isn’t even campaign literature because it does not expressly advocate for or against a candidate so would not have to be disclosed. In the interests of an educated electorate, however, you should know how it is intended to work.

CORRECTION: I previously reported that Wade Major sought an injunction against further spending by Ozzie Silna, and that Judge Terry Friedman denied the request. Mr. Silna’s attorney sent a letter and a copy of the transcript, complaining that that my previous summary of the court’s ruling was inaccurate. In the spirit of accuracy, the court did not view the evidence presented as proving that Mr. Silna coordinated or cooperated with candidates Winokur or Liebig when he sent his letter endorsing them, nor that Silna was an “agent” of a candidate in connection with that campaign expenditure. It did note that Major could seek redress by filing a complaint with the city prosecutor.

I urge the candidates and the voters to take advantage of the League of Women Voter’s Web site, www.SmartVoter.org. When you type in your address, it will give you a great deal of information about the candidates that they post themselves. Only two candidates are up now.