BURLINGTON -- Jeanette Ruffle was in her garden on a recent Sunday afternoon when she got a phone call from a pollster who identified herself as working for "Western Surveys, or something like that," she says. Ruffle, who's on several ecology and naturalist mailing lists, says she initially assumed an environmental outfit was conducting the poll.
When Ruffle, a self-described political independent, realized that the questions were about the 2006 U.S. Senate race in Vermont, she willingly answered them -- that is, until they "became progressively more slanted" against Rep. Bernie Sanders, the independent U.S. Senate candidate. Among them, she says, was one that asked, "Would you rather have a political gadfly in the House or the Senate?"
"It turned into an obviously Republican, Rich Tarrant kind of thing. And it became more and more obnoxious," Ruffle adds. "It smacked of the kind of negative surveying that [George W.] Bush had done back in his campaign." Ruffle stopped participating altogether when it was clear to her that some questions could not be answered without saying something negative about Sanders. She asked to speak to a supervisor, who gave her a name and phone number to call for more information. That number, based in Utah, was out of service.
Political polls are nothing new in Vermont, nor are voter-identification drives -- calls made by campaigns and political parties that try to identify likely voters and see which candidate they're leaning toward. Voter-ID campaigns are often used by candidates to target future phone banks and direct mailings. What Vermonters haven't seen before, however, is the practice of "push-polling" -- or electioneering disguised as an opinion poll with the sole purpose of spreading negative or false information about one's opponent. With the 2006 Vermont U.S. Senate race expected to be the most expensive per capita in history, and with both the Sanders and the Tarrant campaigns employing national polling firms, there are indications that push-polling is happening in Vermont.
Polling and voter-ID campaigns are protected speech, and there's no legal requirement that callers identify whom they work for or who's funding the survey. However, says Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, "There might be some question if it came to a push-poll, a phone call that's designed to persuade voters to vote for a particular candidate."
Neither the Vermont Secretary of State's office nor the Attorney General's office report receiving complaints about alleged push-polling in Vermont.
Burlington resident Doug Hoffer, a progressive economist who often works on public policy issues, says he doesn't know whether the call he received recently was a push-poll, "though this one felt different than any other poll I've ever responded to. It was probably some of the most unpleasant 15 minutes I've ever spent," Hoffer adds. "It was frustrating, annoying, offensive and humorous at the same time."
Hoffer says that the answers he was asked to choose from -- on issues such as abortion, gun control, health care and agriculture -- were "almost tortured in the way they were constrained," and "made some comments about Bernie [Sanders] that, to me, were way off the mark."
"I really don't like the idea of a candidate for the United States Senate, through his polling organization, boiling issues down to four-word questions and answers," he adds.
Hoffer didn't get the name of the company that called him. But Seven Days identified the firm that called Ruffle as Western Wats, an independent market-data collection firm based in Orem, Utah, which also does political polls. In 1996, according to the Washington Post, then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole admitted that his campaign had hired Western Wats to push-poll 300 to 600 Iowa voters during the Republican primary against rival Steve Forbes.
Western Wats is one of the nation's largest market research data-collection companies, but not all of its nine call centers are in the United States. In 2004, the company opened a 30,000-square-foot calling center in the Philippines with more than 300 telephone-interview stations, according to a March 24, 2004, article in Salt Lake City's Desert Morning News.
When contacted by Seven Days, Robert Maccabee, director of client services for Western Wats, initially denied that his company was conducting a "study" in Vermont. However, confronted with the name of the Western Wats employee who spoke with Ruffle, Maccabee amended his response to: "We can neither confirm nor deny that we are doing that study." Asked if he could provide a list of questions being asked of Vermonters, he said, "Absolutely not. All the surveys we do are completely confidential and proprietary."
Tarrant campaign manager Tim Lennon says polls and voter-identification drives will be conducted throughout the campaign, but insists that none is a push-poll. He wouldn't identify which firm is conducting them, and claims he's never heard of Western Wats.
Lennon adds, "Congressman Sanders has already run polls this year testing personal negative attacks against Rich Tarrant," including questions about the location of Tarrant's summer home and the car he drives.
Although it's unclear whether the polls in question were paid for by the Senate Tarrant campaign, the candidate himself has said repeatedly that he is not accepting any money or support from the Republican National Committee.
Asked if pollsters from the Tarrant campaign always identify themselves as such, Lennon answers only, "When the Sanders campaign does a survey, they don't say they're from the Sanders campaign. That's not how surveys are done."
Not so, says Jeff Weaver, Sanders' campaign manager. He asserts that whenever the Sanders campaign engages in a voter-identification drive, the callers identify it as such.
According to Weaver, his office has received "dozens" of complaints about the negative polling being done on Sanders. He believes the poll is coming from the Tarrant camp. While Weaver admits that it's legitimate to ask voters about unflattering aspects of one's opponent, he asserts that it's "unethical" to misrepresent the purpose of those calls. "What's new about it, quite frankly, is the underhanded way this is being done. This is clearly not a poll."
Weaver adds that any calls being made by the Sanders campaign "are not being outsourced," and are coming from within the United States, if not from Vermont.