Smear Polling Draws Criticism From Lawmakers
By Brooks Jackson/CNN
WASHINGTON (March 4) -- In politics the telephone is an indispensible tool, used by candidates to solicit money, shore up support and gauge public opinion. But some candidates are using the phone for what is called "smear polling." It is so controversial, some lawmakers want to see it banned.
At the time of New Hampshire's presidential primary in 1996, Lamar Alexander was rising fast and threatening Bob Dole. He was, at least, until people started receiving phone calls that sounded like polls, but weren't.
New Hampshire state Rep. Doug Teschner received one of those calls.
"When I was asked who I was going to support, and I said Lamar Alexander, I was subjected to some very negative comments about Lamar and whether that would change my vote," Teschner said.
It was the Dole campaign calling nearly every Republican in the state, a campaign accompanied by TV ads attacking Alexander. It worked. Alexander finished third and soon dropped out of the race for the GOP nomination.
But Teschner didn't forget. As a New Hampshire legislator, he is now sponsoring a bill to ban phony polls.
"Really it is a smear of other candidates, and if you want to smear other candidates, fine; just be accountable for your message," Teschner said.
His bill passed the New Hampshire House without opposition and the Senate takes it up soon. It would require those responsible for smear polling to identify themselves.
Florida passed an even tighter law last year, making it a crime to lie about who is paying for any calls attacking or supporting a candidate.
Smear pollers use the same techniques as telephone merchants, they can call thousands of people in a day, and smear polling is on the rise.
"I think we're going to see more of it, because we're seeing more independent third-party activity in political campaigns," said Ron Faucheux of Campaigns and Elections magazine.
Legitimate poll-takers don't have to say who is paying, neither do smear callers, but some in Congress propose to change that.
"We think if people say something in a campaign, they should have to stand behind it, be held accountable for it, be proud of it. So we want disclosure and then that would bring things to light," said Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.).
The bill Petri sponsored died in the last Congress, but he is trying again this year.
It is doubtful how effective controls would be. The new Florida law doesn't even apply to those making fewer than 1,000 calls at a time because the polling industry demanded, and got, an exemption.