There's a difference between hard-fought political campaigning and dirty campaigning. But as the controversy over "push-polling" in South Carolina attests, it's a difference that's not always easy to detect.
Push-polling is the practice of using the cover of a phone survey to actually plant negative impressions about an opponent. In its worst form, it deals in falsehood and invective. Anecdotal evidence is mounting that a fair amount of the latter is going on in South Carolina, whose primary election this Saturday is crucial to GOP rivals John McCain and George W. Bush.
Much of the controversy has centered on Mr. McCain's claim that the Bush camp is using push-polling. But the governor and his people fervently deny it. To prove their point, they released a polling script used by a Houston-based firm they employ. The script certainly stays clear of invective, but there's little doubt it's designed to plant doubts about McCain. For example, it states that the Arizona senator backed the "largest tax increase in United States history."
Of course, it doesn't add that the tax proposal in question was a big hike in the federal tax on cigarettes.
This kind of selective use of information finds its way into most political campaigns. It's up to the other side to set the record straight.
Outright dirt-dealing is another matter. Both sides deny they're doing this, and suspicion is mounting that advocacy groups with no formal ties to the campaigns could be the source.
The victims of this dubious political tactic probably won't be the candidates. Chances are good that negative calls often as not boomerang and turn voters off. Those most hurt are likely to be legitimate pollsters trying to gauge opinion. Every voter angered by what he perceives as push-polling means one less voter willing to spend a few minutes completing a survey.
Political campaigns would be wise to stick to the positive in their telephone spiels - saying why their candidate deserves a vote instead of why the other person can't be trusted. The negative approach, particularly through the intimate medium of the phone line, is almost certain to draw a negative response.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society