With elections drawing near, voters can expect their phones to light up with opinion polls and campaign ads. Sometimes it's hard to tell the two apart.
Already, phone calls have delivered unflattering information about candidates in hotly contested legislative races. Some of the calls come courtesy of organized labor.
At least one targeted candidate calls it “push polling,” but unions say they’re merely trying out potential lines of attack against lawmakers who oppose their progressive agenda.
“We’re just testing messages in order to identify how we best help our champions,” said Kathy Cummings, spokeswoman for DIME PAC, the political action committee started by the Washington State Labor Council.
Whatever it’s called, recipients get few details about who’s paying for it. At its meeting today, the State Public Disclosure Commission plans to consider whether that should change. The board could ask next year’s Legislature to require more disclosure.
Any new requirements could apply strictly to campaign telephone advertising such as “push polling,” or it could extend to legitimate polling, board members said in discussions at their June meeting.
The key difference between the two is that “push polls,” which aim to persuade, go out to a large number of people. Real pollsters, who aim to measure opinion, call only a small sample. Cummings said labor’s calls are going to a small sample.
Cummings declined to say exactly where the polling is happening, but it appears to be targeting voters in parts of the “suburban crescent,” the arc of swing districts around Seattle, to test negative messages about Republicans and centrist Democrats.
Republican candidate Joe Fain called it “push polling” in an e-mail to supporters asking for money, and he blamed his opponent, Democratic Sen. Claudia Kauffman of Kent, for the calls that “mud-sling and distort the facts.”
But the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee said neither it nor Kauffman is behind the calls, and David Barclay, who’s running Fain’s campaign, said all the campaign really knows about the calls is that a firm called Mountain West Research placed them.
A man who answered the phone at Idaho-based Mountain West Research Center and identified himself as the group’s director declined to comment or give his name.
Chris Gregorich, who runs the Senate Democrats’ committee, said the calls also targeted a Democrat, Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens.
If labor is responsible, Gregorich said, it’s “probably (the) first salvo in these various races they’re planning on playing in.”
The labor council created the DIME, or Don’t Invest in More Excuses, PAC to target its money to supporters rather than all Democrats. The council has been critical of legislative Democrats and especially of the self-styled Roadkill Caucus, centrist Democrats who organized out of a shared feeling of being run over by liberals and Republicans.
Hobbs co-founded the group. The labor council endorsed Hobbs’ Democratic challenger, Lillian Kaufer.
Senate Democrats were behind another recent poll, testing messages about Republican Sen. Pam Roach of Auburn, who Democrats hope is vulnerable to defeat after dustups with fellow legislators and staff.
Gregorich said the call asked 31st Legislative District voters for their responses to positive and negative descriptions of Roach and a Democratic challenger, Raymond Bunk.
“It’s a balanced poll. It’s not a push (poll),” Gregorich said. “It’s actually us trying to see where we need to be, getting the message out.”
The PDC could consider whether all such polls need to give voters more disclosure. Commissioner Jim Clements of Selah, at the PDC’s June meeting, liked the idea of disclosure for pollsters.
“I like to know who’s entered my space,” he said.