Jean's View: The pollsters are coming

By Jean Godden

My phone began ringing overtime this week with calls from public opinion pollsters. I am an easy target, an almost perfect voter having missed only one election. (Blame a bad case of stomach flu in the days before mail-in voting.)

Whenever there is an election or local controversy I get dozens of calls. Pollsters want to know how I feel about certain candidates and how I plan to vote on ballot issues.

This week I got two calls from the same PR firm. The first I brushed off; the second I decided, out of curiosity, to answer. I knew it was a survey because the poor, probably underpaid worker couldn't pronounce my name. It is God-den; not Good-en. Is there some rule they can't say "god?"

The call I took was from the Burnett Group, a New York-based "boutique marketing and communication firm." The interviewer wanted to ask about local issues and said it would take "only a few minutes."

The first question -- as usual -- was whether I planned to vote. (I have every intention.) Then the pollster asked whether I thought the city was "generally headed in the right direction." (I do.) What do I think of the City Council: Highly favorable? Somewhat favorable? Somewhat unfavorable? Highly unfavorable? Then she asked my opinion of the mayor with the same four categories.

Next the "boutique" surveyor insisted I identify the city's "largest problem." I thought a minute and decided on "homelessness." I could have mentioned others, including gender inequity, traffic management, racial biases, health and environmental threats, regressive taxation and scarce affordable housing.

Then there came a show stopper. The interviewer wanted to know my opinion of Michael Bloomberg. Michael who? Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York. Weren't we discussing local issues? Is Bloomberg, along with a cast of wanna-bes, planning to run for mayor of Seattle?

The interviewer then asked my opinion of "the soda industry." Ah ha, at last I realized the survey was commissioned by soft drink companies fighting a proposed tax on sugary drinks or perhaps by those working to impose such a tax. That would explain mention of Michael Bloomberg, who famously paid to promote soda taxes in San Francisco and Philadelphia.

I answered saying that I am "neutral" on the soda industry, an answer that flustered the interviewer.

She demanded: "Soda. What do you think of soda?" This pollster was an East coaster for sure. Easterners drink "soda," we Westerners drink "pop." I insisted that, when it comes to soda/pop, I remain "neutral." She said I couldn't answer "neutral," that I must pick one of the "highly" or "somewhat" categories.

When I said that was ridiculous, she hung up on me. Imagine: Hung up on by a pollster? I can only guess at the rest of the survey; maybe there were questions about regressive taxation, job layoffs or damage to small businesses.

Clearly, it is now polling season and the Barnett poll was merely the vanguard. With the number of Seattle mayoral candidates growing daily and with ballot issues multiplying, I expect we will be earlobe deep in polls before the November election.

What's needed now is a word of caution. If you agree to answer a survey, you should insist on knowing the identity of the polling company and where that firm is located. Can't be too careful with your opinions and can't allow yourself to be duped by possible push polling.

Push polling, pioneered by the likes of Richard Nixon, is a telemarketing ploy designed -- not to do research -- but to exert influence, often through the use of innuendo and rumor. For example, during the 2008 presidential election, Jewish voters were targeted by push polls that linked President Obama to anti-Israel positions. One poll intimated that Obama was Muslim; another claimed he was meeting with PLO leaders in Chicago.

One tell-tale sign that a poll is more propaganda than information gathering, is when questions tend to be brief and the pollster neglects to collect data like gender and age.

For good or ill, polling is a fact of political life. It's important to be aware and resist being duped by dishonest push polls. Otherwise you, too, could suffer the indignity -- and joy -- of a hang up.

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