Push-Poll Sleaziness

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:51

    Bush Comes To Shove Whatever wacky metaphor Reed had in mind, Bush used last week to get real tough. So tough, in fact, that he was indirectly accused at a Thursday-morning "town-meeting" in Spartanburg of sponsoring a telemarketing campaign that was tarring McCain as "a cheat, a liar and a fraud." A lady named Donna Duren stood up and told McCain that her teenage son, who idolized the Vietnam vet, had been on the receiving end of one of these calls, and had spent the evening close to tears. This would have been the perfect opportunity for the old soldier to turn to Mrs. Duren and say, "Lady, if your son turns into a sobbing wreck when he hears a politician insulted, you've got bigger problems than negative campaigning." But he didn't. He could also have made a point about the fraud of calling any campaign rally at which more than four people show up a "town meeting." The town meeting is a form of local governance specific to New England, and its democratic traditions are wholly alien to South Carolina. At a real town meeting, citizens come to vote on concrete policy issues; personal digressions are neither encouraged nor tolerated. By contrast, the neo-"town meeting," with its overtones of 12-Steppery, seems to be most popular in boondock, central-government-loving places like South Carolina, where citizens use the occasion to whine about their personal problems to a television audience. What's more, the politicians who have taken to this Toquevillian charade like ducks to water are those Southern con artists of both parties who envision national solutions for everything from prescription drugs to moral regeneration. But McCain didn't mention that, either.

    What he did do was make hay with Ms. Duren's implication that the Bush campaign is resorting, in its desperation, to "push-polling." The push poll is an innovation of the 1990s, the fruit of campaign consultants' discovery of two uncomfortable electoral facts: (1) the public hates negative campaigning and (2) the public is swayed by it as by nothing else. Push polls are a means of making brutally negative appeals without letting the media find out about them. It would be no surprise if the Bushies were using them; on the other hand, if it were discovered that the McCain campaign had planted that lady, I wouldn't exactly fall off my chair, either.

    How push polls work was outlined by The Wall Street Journal's brilliant Glenn Simpson in his 1996 book Dirty Little Secrets. You take gobs of soft money (which gives your candidate plausible deniability) and invest it in an out-of-state phone-bank company. You set up a "polling" outfit with a neutral name like the Center for the Study of Problems. Then you start calling lists of likely voters.

    The typical "poll" starts by asking who the target is voting for. If it's your candidate?end of poll. You just find out if the guy on the phone needs any help getting to his voting station. But if it's the opponent, then the real questioning starts, which generally involves a series of wholly untrue statements couched in conditionals to make them sound like facts. As in: "Would you be more or less likely to vote for Charlie Frontrunner if you knew that he had been arrested in Chickenshit City, AL, on March 23, 1986, for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine?" The late, crooked Florida Democrat Lawton Chiles emerged as the first master of the genre. Chiles used a series of "Medi-Scare" push polls?implying that Republicans wanted to abolish all subsidies for prescription drugs?to destroy his Republican opponent Jeb Bush in the 1994 governor's race. The same year, an unmarried Ohio Democratic congressman (now ex-Ohio congressman) was the victim of thousands of calls asking residents of his district, "Would it change your opinion of Eric Fingerhut if you knew he was gay?"

    Bob Dole proved the effectiveness of push-polling when he got caught making negative calls about Steve Forbes in the 1996 Iowa primaries. Dole won the nomination; Forbes' complaints about Dole's tactics seemed sufficiently Perot-like to doom his candidacy. In recent years, push polls have been tailored to fit really specific voter lists, which makes them even more effective. If the Republican Party can get its hands on the phone list of the Small-Town Alliance Against Adultery (which they probably can), they can hint that Congressman Smith has a wandering eye. If the Democrats have the list of the Coalition of Urban Vandals (which they probably do), they can imply that Mayor Brown favors the death penalty for graffiti artists. That father of tv-age South Carolina politics, Lee Atwater, turns out to have been right: If you convince voters to like your candidate, they can still change their minds; but if you convince them to hate your candidate's opponent, nothing will shake them, ever.

    Diss Establishment You had to feel bad for Bush. McCain's complaints about the role of money in politics were proving so magical that even New Jersey Senate candidate Jim Florio?than whom no one has less standing to complain about rigged political processes?wanted a piece of the action. Florio gave a lecture at Princeton in which he attacked his primary opponent Jon Corzine simply for having more money than he did, and promised to "wreck the system that is currently in place that is putting so much emphasis on money." Like most charismatic political crusades, McCain's antiestablishment shtick either sings to you or it doesn't. David Gergen, speaking on NewsHour, showed himself to be one of those who don't get it: "It's an interesting thing," Gergen said. "John McCain is talking about some of the kinds of things that George Bush Sr. used to talk about...the kind of economics that George Bush Sr. supported in 1980 in his first campaign for the presidency. And the son has picked up the Reagan banner. It's one of the great ironies of this, that George Bush Jr. is talking Reagan economics, and John McCain is talking the moderate line that existed in the party for so long and that was a predominant line until Ronald Reagan came along."

    What baloney. Gergen is under the delusion that this election is about issues. It's not. McCain wouldn't recognize an issue if he were held captive in a bamboo cage with it for five years. If Bush cannot capitalize, it's because his campaign is not interested in issues either?at least not any that are hot at the present. The only difference between his personality-based campaign and McCain's is that Bush genuflects to a few issues that were hot around the time Gergen was in the Reagan White House. That's not enough to convince voters that, in a battle of personalities, they'd prefer the Preppie Cokehead over the crazy POW?which is about all voters know of either of them.

    Bush can't "pick up the Reagan banner" by promising supply-side economics any more than he can pick up the Roosevelt banner by promising to win a war with Japan. Circumstances are different. Reagan's tax policies corrected problems?that no longer exist. They toppled a complacent generation of Carterites?who are no longer in politics. They were a window on Reagan's character?which were unique to him. And they brought to power a group of politicians who were willing to listen to the American public?but who aren't listening anymore.

    That's why people who ask, "Who is the candidate of the conservative movement in this election?" also don't get it. There is no longer a conservative movement, any more than there's a Civil Rights movement (even though Democrats?none more pathetically than Bill Bradley?continue to campaign as if there were). What there is is a conservative establishment, which resembles the Civil Rights establishment. An establishment is what a movement becomes when?inevitably?its ranks get swollen with opportunists and its members grow less interested in defending any political cause than in defending institutional prerogatives. The best example from last week came when the National Right to Life Committee and its South Carolina affiliate both endorsed Bush, even though McCain's position on abortion and Bush's position on abortion are virtually identical. Both call themselves "pro-life" while constantly signaling voters that abortion is perfectly safe with them. It's not that the NRLC has discovered some subtle difference between the two. It's rather that Bush's vision of political funding would allow the NRLC to protect its financial position, and McCain's (admittedly moronic) campaign finance reform would not.

    It appears that Bush himself doesn't get it. In extremis, he enlisted several senators to help him out. Among them was Mitch McConnell, the Pangloss of our campaign finance laws, who is the very last person Bush should have defending him against McCain's onslaught. In a masterpiece of casuistry, McConnell argued that, although Bush has raised scads more money than McCain in every conceivable category, Bush's advantage in Washington, DC, is a bit less overwhelming than his advantage in the hinterland. Therefore, McConnell explained, "On a percentage basis, Sen. McCain has really been the inside-the-Beltway candidate." Oh, yes! And when Little Johnny Jones down the street died of food poisoning, it was a bigger catastrophe for children?"on a percentage basis"?than the Bubonic Plague.