Sandra Combs, a computer programmer who lives in New Rochelle, N.Y., got an unusual telephone call on the evening of July 25. Ms. Combs recalled that the caller identified himself as a researcher and told her he was conducting a “political opinion survey” of New York races.
But the questioner seemed oddly focused on one race, and on one candidate: Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In an interview with The Observer , Ms. Combs remembered being asked a range of questions, all of which, she concluded, seemed designed to darken her opinion of Mrs. Clinton. She recalled being asked things like:
Could she name one thing Mrs. Clinton had ever done for New York? Did she think Mrs. Clinton was a truthful person or not? Did she believe Mrs. Clinton when she said she had misplaced the Rose Law Firm documents? Did she believe Mrs. Clinton was really a Yankee fan? Did she believe Mrs. Clinton when she said she didn’t use the term “Jew bastard” a quarter century ago?
Ms. Combs–a self-described Hillary-supporter who says she is the sister-in-law of Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, an at-large delegate for George W. Bush at the Republican convention–quickly concluded that she had been subjected to what’s known as a “push-poll,” in which pollsters attempt to sway voters against a candidate under the guise of objective research.
“I believe the questions were designed to plant negative ideas in my head, rather than to elicit my opinion on the issues,” said Ms. Combs, who wrote down as much of the conversation as she could recall immediately after hanging up. “I am convinced it was a push-poll on behalf of Representative Lazio.”
Since Ms. Combs didn’t catch the name of her mystery pollster’s firm, there is no way of knowing whether the caller is working for the Lazio campaign. And Dan McLagan, a Lazio campaign spokesman, adamantly denied any connection to the caller.
“We don’t push-poll, we haven’t push-polled, we won’t ever push-poll,” Mr. McLagan said. “Push-polling is a heinous practice…We absolutely, universally condemn its use and hope Mrs. Clinton refrains from such practices in the fall.”
Still, Mr. Lazio has benefited from push-polling before. His campaign, employing veteran G.O.P. pollster Tony Fabrizio, push-polled in the course of winning his most famous victory to date, his successful win over veteran Congressman Tom Downey in 1992, one of Mr. Lazio’s senior advisers at the time told The Observer .
And in an interview with U.S. News & World Report in June, Howard DeMartini, the former Republican chairman in Suffolk County, recalled the use of the tactic against Mr. Downey.
“They were just starting push-polls,” Mr. DeMartini, a key Lazio ally at the time, told the magazine, “and we asked, ‘If the election were held today and you knew Downey had bounced 150 checks at the House bank, that his wife was the auditor of the bank, that he had taken junkets to Barbados and voted to raise taxes, who would you vote for?’” Mr. Lazio won the race by six points.
Whoever is behind the phone call, the questions Ms. Combs recalled seem strikingly similar to the general tenor of some of Mr. Lazio’s official campaign literature. For instance, Lazio 2000, the Congressman’s campaign committee, recently mailed out a “campaign advisory survey” that contained a similar line of inquiry.
The survey, obtained by The Observer , instructs recipients to answer a number of questions “to help us finalize our TV and radio advertising message to defeat Hillary Clinton for United States Senate.” After reassuring participants that their answers will be kept “strictly confidential,” the survey asks, among others, the following questions:
“Do you believe that Hillary Clinton will say and do anything to win this U.S. Senate race?”
“Do you believe Mrs. Clinton plans to use a position in the U.S. Senate as a launching pad for a future run for President?”
“Do you believe that Hillary Clinton will try to run for Senate as a ‘moderate,’ then vote as an extreme liberal if elected to the Senate?”
Such “surveys” are usually meant to engage the interest of potential contributors in hopes that they will send a check along with their opinions, as well as to send recipients a negative message about the opponent. But those questionnaires that are actually filled out and returned to a campaign often meet a fate far different from the checks that accompany them.
“They’re more likely to wind up in the Dumpster than in the hands of a campaign strategist,” said Republican consultant Rick Wilson, who was chief strategist on Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s now-defunct Senate campaign. “I’ve never been in a campaign where these so-called surveys had anything to do with the direction of the campaign.”
The tone of the call Ms. Combs recalled receiving on July 25 was not much more subtle than the questionnaire.
“[The caller] asked, ‘What did I think Hillary meant when she told her supporters that after the election she and Al Gore would be themselves? Did I think she and Al would reveal their liberal agenda, or did I think she would just enjoy being a Senator from New York?” Ms. Combs added~ that she was asked what she liked least about Mrs. Clinton.
Soon after, Ms. Combs recalled asking her questioner if he planned to ask her any questions about Mr. Lazio. “He said, ‘I will get to what Rick has to say in a minute.’ So it sounded like he was going to be giving me quotes by Rick about Hillary.”
But the negative questions about Mrs. Clinton continued, Ms. Combs recalled. “He asked me, ‘Did I agree or disagree with the following statements?’ And the one I remember is, ‘Hillary is an outsider and has done nothing for New York.’”
Ms. Combs finally hung up on the caller. But she remained so irritated by the call that, soon after, she joined an Internet chat and posted her criticism of push-polling.
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