Gutter politics in Bloomington: Beware of ‘push polling’

By Peter Dorfman

Six days in, with the 2023 Democratic primary election barely getting underway, voters in small town Bloomington got their first taste of big city campaign sleaze.

On February 9, a friendly-looking post showed up in local voters’ Facebook feeds. It’s hosted by an innocuous page called “Indiana Citizens,” with a generic state flag profile picture and no cover photo. “We have a new survey for Bloomington,” the page’s one and only post cheerfully advises. “Please click the link below to share your thoughts.”

The link, displayed beneath a familiar-looking tourism promotion image of Kirkwood Avenue facing west, is to a poll, built using the mass market polling tool SurveyMonkey, titled “Bloomington, What Do You Think?” and blandly subtitled “A new survey for Bloomington.”

The invitation provides no context aside from its connection with the town. But such things are hard to resist. We all relish the opportunity to express our likes and dislikes. Curiosity got the better of me.

Click through to the survey and you’re asked first to pigeonhole yourself via a series of demographic questions — age, income and the like. Then you’re presented with the meat of the poll, which is about Bloomington politics and the 2023 election.

The survey seemingly is designed to gauge your preferences among the three Democratic mayoral candidates: Council Member Susan Sandberg, realtor and former Deputy Mayor Don Griffin, and Kerry Thomson, the executive director of an Indiana University think tank called the Center for Rural Engagement. It asks a series of questions about local issues, and then asks again about your preferences among the three mayoral hopefuls. The intent appears to be to determine whether thinking about those issues changes your perception of the candidates.

At any rate, that’s how things seem until you arrive at the penultimate page of the survey — and the tell. There, the survey presents a series of campaign talking points, and asks you to choose which of them best expresses the reason why Kerry Thomson is the best choice for Bloomington’s mayor. Is there a similar question regarding Griffin or Sandberg? Nope. Because this isn’t an objective survey. It’s what the political wonks call a “push poll,” designed to boost Kerry Thomson’s mayoral campaign, and to gather contacts for email, phone or in-person canvassing.

The nonpartisan website Ballotpedia defines push polling thusly:

“Push polling is a negative campaigning technique, typically conducted by telephone, used to influence voters by asking specific questions about an issue or a candidate. Under the guise of an objective opinion poll, loaded questions are posed to mislead or bias the listener against an opposing candidate or political party. The American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), the American Association of Political Consultants, the Council for Marketing and Opinion Research, and the National Council on Public Polls have denounced the practice.”

The Indiana Citizens Facebook page is essentially fake. If the organization exists at all, it has no easily discovered website. There is no ongoing discussion going on under the page’s aegis. It claims to have 786 “Likes” and and 840 followers, but these numbers are presented in static text — it doesn’t link to any database.

Facebook’s transparency data panel states that the page was created April 24, 2018. It’s the property of San Francisco-based Change Research Public Benefit Corp., a survey vendor serving mostly liberal Democratic campaigns with an array of paid services — apparently including push polling. Here’s its “origin story.”

Push polling is, as far as I know, legal, but it’s extremely unethical. It’s a lie. It is possible that this is funded not by the campaign but by some other group that sees some advantage in Thomson becoming mayor, but the Thomson campaign owes Bloomington an explanation.

Bloomington Dissident Democrats has just distributed a survey of its own. It’s not a voter survey — it was distributed to the 22 candidates running for mayor or for City Council seats, and offers them an opportunity to differentiate themselves by their positions on issues related to Bloomington’s growth and development.

In our view, these questions have been neglected by the organizations hosting upcoming candidate forums, who tend to focus on issues like diversity, inclusion, racial justice, climate change and the like. Those are all valid concerns, but our sense is that the issues that truly set Bloomington Democrats apart from one another are those related to how the town manages its population growth, housing needs, infrastructure limitations, cost of living and opportunities for employment at living wages. Those are the issues our poll seeks to bring out of each Democratic hopeful.

Responses are coming in. It’s possible that some candidates will decline to participate, in the belief that Dissident Democrats have already made up our minds about their campaigns. We’ll see what happens.

February 17 Addendum

From Dave Askins, editor of the B Square Bulletin, in his February 17 “Dave’s Digest” email:

“Confirmed: Survey about Bloomington stems from Kerry Thomson for mayor campaign. Some of you might have seen a link to a survey floating around the internet with questions for Bloomington residents. Here’s a link: .pdf of text of the survey questions. There’s around three dozen questions, some of them with several parts. And one of them, towards the end, goes like this: Regardless of who you plan to vote for, which TWO are the best reasons to vote for Kerry Thomson in the Democratic primary election for Mayor of Bloomington? (There’s five reasons offered as choices.) There doesn’t appear to be a corresponding question for Griffin and Sandberg, asking respondents for the two best reasons to vote for those candidates. That has led to some speculation that the survey originated with the Thomson campaign.

“I got confirmation from the Thomson campaign that it is their survey, which they are using to try to gauge early public sentiment on key issues and the race. Given that the respondents will all be self-selected, that makes it an unscientific sampling of respondents, so the campaign won’t be able to rely on it as an accurate representation of voter attitudes.”

I don’t find the Thomson campaign’s characterization of the survey as intended “to try to gauge early public sentiment on key issues and the race” very credible. I also wonder why the survey isn’t labeled “Paid for by Kerry for Bloomington,” as campaign materials generally are required to be.

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