With one week to go, the South Dakota Senate race remains on a razor's edge . The latest information TPM has received has Johnson blipping up by a point or two. But is Johnson's opponent, Congressman John Thune, trying to even the score with some last minute 'push-polls'?
In case you're wondering, 'push-polls' first got attention in the early 1990s and they're the specialty of your greasier sort of political tele-marketing firm. A 'push-poll' isn't really a poll, or at least it's not really an effort to gain public opinion information. It's actually a stealth form of negative advertising. So for instance, you might have a list of a few questions followed by something like: "Would you still vote for candidate X if those awful charges about his beating his wife turned out to be true?" Click ... phone hangs up.
You get the idea...
Now someone is pulling one of these stunts in South Dakota.
For a week or more there've been rumors around the state that voters were getting classic push-polls tarring Tim Johnson with responsibility for engaging in voter fraud or "rigging the election." The fraud story began to fade about a week ago, fizzling for lack of substance. But it's a close race and the Thune campaign would still like to use it against Johnson.
Push-polling is notoriously difficult to track down and prove. And the financial paper-trail, to the extent there is one, usually only comes to light long after the election is over.
Today I spoke to two South Dakota voters who received such calls.
Ann Boer lives in Lyons, South Dakota, about twenty miles northwest of Sioux Falls. (Her husband, Vern Boer (D), is a candidate for Minnehaha County Commissioner.) Recently, Mrs. Boer received a survey call. The questioner first asked a few generic questions: leaning more toward Republicans or Democrats, more likely to vote for Thune or Johnson, etc. And then he asked: "Have you heard about the investigation going on about fraud in registering voters?"
Boer said yes.
"And if it was told to you tomorrow that it was Johnson's campaign that was responsible for this [fraud] then would that change your vote?"
Here's how Boer described the rest of the call: "I said 'no' and then he said 'why?' and I said 'because I know it's not verified that his campaign is responsible for it.' And then he just kind of hurried up and quit."
"I've gotten numerous calls but I've never gotten one like that," Boer told me Tuesday afternoon. "It was like accusing someone of something that hasn't even been verified."
Then there's Kathy Gustafson.
A bit after 9:00 PM Monday night Gustafson, a graduate student and teaching assistant at South Dakota State University, got a similar call. The caller started out with the standard questions of whether Gustafson leaned more toward the Democrats or the Republicans, whether she supported the NRA, pro-life or pro-choice, etc.
Then came the zinger. "If you knew that Tim Johnson had rigged the election, would you still vote for him?"
Gustafson didn't like the sound of that question and immediately asked the caller who he was working for. He said Central Marketing of New York City. Gustafson told the caller that she would still vote for Johnson since she didn't think there was anything to the charges. She also told him "a question like that had no business on a survey."
"He thanked me for my time," Gustafson told me on Tuesday. "He did not react or respond to my response to the question ... I asked one more time for him to clarify the company to make sure I got that right. And he said 'Central Marketing, Manhattan, New York City.'" (In yet another call to a South Dakota number, a survey caller identified himself as working for Central Marketing Incorporated (CMI) of Hudson, Florida.)
On Tuesday evening, Gustafson got the same call again from Central Marketing. A lot of these calls, it would seem, are getting made.
The Thune and Johnson campaigns are both now operating under a pledge to run only positive ads through election day. Someone is simultaneously running a pretty slimy negative ad campaign over the state's telephones. One assumes it's not the Johnson campaign.
A late afternoon call to Thune spokesperson Christine Iverson, requesting comment, was not returned.