Election - Dirty tricksThe phantom push poll 

Candidates point fingers, citizens ponder

The infamous push poll of February: Some say it never existed. Others claim it lived as surely as the Yeti, but died when the voting public turned their cheek on moral turpitude and focused on real issues. Many are still trying to sort out what happened, and who was the real victim: Julian Castro, Phil Hardberger, or Carroll Schubert?

On a Wednesday evening in February, Philip Cortez, Castro's campaign manager, answered the telephone at his girlfriend's house. The caller asked for a registered voter and Cortez, who says he had "heard stories about a push poll," got a notebook and transcribed the 44-question, 828-word poll in its entirety. "I had to ask her to repeat everything several times," says Cortez. "But she was very nice; we were laughing and making jokes about some of the statements. She wasn't suspicious at all."

If I told you that...

Judge Phil Hardberger likes to kick puppies

Julian Castro dodged the Vietnam draft

Carroll Schubert routinely mows his lawn on air quality health alert days

How likely would you be to vote for him?
The push poll controversy revolves around questions in which the pollster reportedly said she was going to read him "some points about the candidates," then ask him whether they would make him more or less likely to vote for them. Of 22 questions, only five relate to Schubert and Castro, the rest are negative statements about Hardberger, accusing him of everything from not paying his taxes and suing a Little League baseball team to being out of favor with President Bush and vowing to raise property taxes. The few statements about his opponents seem relatively innocuous: "Julián Castro is a councilman from the West Side, and is focused on bringing high-tech jobs and a higher quality of life to residents" or "Carroll Schubert's campaign is being funded by developers and lobbyists."

When, Cortez hung up the phone with the pollster, he immediately contacted Castro, who issued a press release calling for Schubert to "end dirty campaign tactics," and defended his opponent: "Judge Hardberger is a good man. To try and discredit him this way is disgraceful."

So why isn't the Hardberger campaign thankful?

"When it comes to the push poll ... there are a lot of questions on both Schubert's and Castro's sides," says Christian Archer, Hardberger's campaign manager. "I'm not sure there ever was a push poll."

Archer says the poll Cortez transcribed does not fit the profile of a classic push poll, which is designed to change opinions, not measure them. Unlike a legitimate poll, which contacts a small, representative sampling, a push poll calls thousands of voters. While a legitimate poll will describe the candidates' negative and positive characteristics to gauge voter reaction, a push poll will focus on negatives, sometimes stretching the truth. Because they aren't gathering statistics and responses from the voter, push polls tend to be shorter: "A push poll is four questions, not 44," Archer says.

Archer also takes issue with Castro's decision to publicize the poll. "Here's the real problem," he says. "There was Castro vouching for Judge Hardberger's integrity æ as if he needed to, as if the Judge hadn't been the chief justice of the Fourth Court of Appeals æ while he was handing out copies of `the poll`. Then he says, Sorry Judge, I only handed it to the media." Although no local media outlets published the entire poll, TJ Connolly, unofficial adviser for the Castro campaign, posted it on the website, sanantoniolightning.com.

"It's the oldest game in the book," says Scott Pool, Schubert's campaign manager, "make an accusation and then force your opponent to refute it. If we deny it, well then, all of a sudden the burden of proof falls to us. The only campaign that was never vetted about their motives was the Castro campaign."

Castro and the media initially criticized Schubert for steadfastly declining to comment on whether Schubert was polling at the time of the alleged push poll; nor would Schubert reveal the contents of his polls. "We don't want to tip our hand to the opposition, we said that even pre-push poll incident," Pool says, "I can categorically and emphatically deny that `the Schubert campaign` has ever done a push poll."

Pool and Archer also wonder why no voters have publicly corroborated Cortez' story. "One of the radio personalities on KPFA was begging people to call in and complain, but I don't think anyone ever called them, even after two or three days," says Pool.

Kevin Allen, a software engineer at Southwest Research Institute, says he was push polled around the same time as Cortez. His experience sheds no light on the phantom push poll, however, because the questions he remembers don't appear on the poll transcribed by Cortez.

Pool gives Castro "kudos for creative negative campaigning," but says the specter of push polling is not haunting Schubert's campaign. "It did for a week or so, but now I think the campaign and the voters have moved on."

"In the end," adds Archer, "`the push poll allegations` had a negative impact on Castro's campaign. We exposed a dirty trick, and I think a lot of people were offended by it."

By Susan Pagani



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