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Push comes to shove over push polls

"The push is on for political races across the region. But one candidate claimed this week that his opposition is pushing a little to hard.In a press release issued Wednesday, 10th District Republican candidate Barry Sehlin of Oak Harbor said a public opinion poll being conducted by Democrats smacks of repugnant tricks. Sehlin is running in a September primary against Marysville Republican Hugh Fleet for a chance to unseat incumbent Democrat Dave Anderson of Clinton in the state House. The House was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans during the last legislative session, with neither party being able to claim control. The 10th District is considered a key swing district by both parties and is already shaping up as a hotly contested race. Sehlin says it should be a hard-fought campaign, but he alleges that a current telephone survey being conducted by Seattle-based research company Evans-McDonough and paid for by Democrats falls under the heading of a push poll. Push polls use questionable tactics to push voters toward certain candidates by portraying their opponents in a negative light. They do so under the guise of being unbiased public-opinion surveys. Push polls received a lot of attention during the Republican presidential primaries in February when Sen. John McCain accused Gov. George W. Bush of using them to quietly smear his reputation. Such polls are denounced by professional polling associations, who call them unethical political telemarketing in disguise.Don McDonough, a principal of Evans-McDonough, admitted Thursday that his firm is indeed conducting polling in the 10th District area but flatly denied that the survey was a push poll.Absolutely not, he said. We don't do that. The only kind of polling we do is statistically valid polling. There's no negative information in there at all.But Oak Harbor resident Margaret Grunwald said the survey she answered earlier this week was definitely biased in favor of Democratic candidates.It was so rigged, she said Thursday. I was ticked.Deceptive tactics?Grunwald, who said she has supported both Democrat and Republican candidates in the past, said the poll started out innocently with very general questions, but soon got into presenting hypothetic situations where she was asked if she would be more or less likely to support a candidate if she knew certain things about them.When they did Dave Anderson they didn't really mention anything that you could argue with. But when they asked about Barry Sehlin they started out with 'takes money from developers' and it went downhill from there, she said.Grunwald said she knows Sehlin well and felt the survey portrayed him unfairly. After about 10 to 15 minutes, Grunwald said she felt so misled that she cut the survey off before it was completed.McDonough did not hide the fact that his firm was being paid by the state Democratic Party and the House and Senate Democratic Caucuses. He added that the survey concentrates on Democratic candidates including Anderson; incumbent Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano, who is being opposed by Republican Norma Smith of Clinton; and John McCoy, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Kelly Barlean, R-Langley.We're not supposed to be objective, said McDonough. Our Republican counterparts are doing exactly the same thing.But McDonough said the Democratic candidates in the district specifically told the firm not to include negative or misleading questions in the survey.Senator Haugen said she didn't want any negative information at all, he said.Grunwald confirmed that Smith, Haugen's challenger, was not even mentioned during the survey. When contacted by the News-Times on Thursday, Barlean said that he had not heard any complaints from constituents about the survey and was unaware of any problems. But Grunwald and Anacortes resident Tom Stowe, who was also called by the pollster, said the Anderson-Sehlin contest was definitely a topic of the survey.I told her (the survey taker) that the questions were slanted - sort of like those have-you-stopped-beating-your-mother-yet questions, said Stowe. He said the caller was courteous but appeared not to know much about the race or area beyond what was written out for her. That was at least partly explained by McDonough, who said his company uses phone banks in Spokane and Boise to make the calls. He said the firm tries to educate the callers about the issues but admits they do not always have a thorough understanding. Stowe said he was also put off by the fact that the caller did not make it clear that she was conducting a poll for the Democratic party. He criticized the poor wording of the questions and what he called convoluted nature of the survey. It was difficult to see what they were getting at.DEMOS DEFENSEKaren Anderson, campaign manager for Dave Anderson, said she had not seen a copy of all the questions on the survey but a sample of questions had been sent to the candidates for approval. She said candidate Anderson clearly told his political consultant that he would not approve any negative or false statements in the poll.We absolutely said you can't do anything like that, she said. She added that several false accusations about Dave Anderson have recently appear in print, so he is quite distressed by that kind of campaigning.Erica Wiley, political director for the state Democratic Party, also denied Sehlin's claim that the survey was unethical.We're not doing any push polling, she said. But when asked if the party had any official position on the use of push polling, Wiley said she didn't know.McDonough said the survey takers clearly state at the beginning of the call that they are working for Evans-McDonough. They do not, however, indicate that the Democratic party is paying for the poll. But, he added, the voter is always in control of the process.At any point if a person decides they don't want to continue they can decline to go on or terminate the survey, said McDonough. There's nothing surreptitious about it.Sehlin characterized push polling as a well-established political tactic, but he said he was not aware of anyone using it in this area before.We've had some very aggressive campaigns in this region, but they've always been honest, he said. Push polling is a way to distribute or disseminate information that is at best misleading or at worst downright false, without the candidate behind it being responsible for it.Though Sehlin didn't cast any direct accusations against Anderson he did challenge the Democrat to run an honest and accountable campaign.Sehlin readily admits that the Republican party will also be doing public polling in the area and he hopes they will follow the same advice.They have been told by me in no uncertain terms that (push polling) is totally inappropriate, he said. "

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