Are polls pushing voters toward Liberals?

Jesus, and we wonder why the Election turned out so weird. The Pollsters knew nothing, because the people they talked to lied to them. Nobody wants to talk to a fucking Pollster, anyway. They are Vermin. And they are getting paid to harass you with questions, but you're not getting a dime for it. You're not even getting on TV.

- Hunter S. Thompson on the 2000 U.S. election, in Hey Rube, 2004

Is the B.C. Liberal party engaging in a controversial U.S. election practice called "push polling" in ridings across British Columbia?

Or are the Liberals just spending between hundreds of thousands to more than a million dollars doing extensive "polling" that features a pro-Liberal spin in every riding in the province?

The Georgia Straight has exclusively obtained all the polling questions being asked of an undetermined number of constituents in Premier Gordon Campbell's home riding of Vancouver-Point Grey by a Winnipeg-based research firm called Western Opinion Research, which has previously been the party's pollster of record.

For the second time in three years, I was called at home by a phoner from Western Opinion Research and asked to answer questions about B.C. politics and the Campbell government. The caller said she was conducting the poll for "Warshall Research" but my telephone caller identification showed the call was, in fact, coming from Western Opinion Research. No company called "Warshall Research" could be found listed under several different spellings, nor had several Canadian pollsters ever heard of it.

The polling raises other issues, including how concerned the B.C. Liberals are about Campbell's public image. (One question asks respondents whether they agree or disagree with this statement: "Premier Gordon Campbell is mean-spirited.")

Here are the B.C. Liberal party polling questions conducted by "Warshall Research" from the offices of Western Opinion Research on February 17, 2005:

1. Do you think things in B.C. are going in the right direction or are on the wrong track?

2. What is the most important issue for provincial representatives to deal with in the next three to six months?

3. The following people are active in public life. Do you have a favourable or unfavourable impression?

> Gordon Campbell, leader of the B.C. Liberal party

> Carole James, leader of the B.C. NDP

> Adrianne Carr, leader of the Green party

4. If a provincial election were held tomorrow, who would you vote for?

> The B.C. Liberal party

> The B.C. NDP

> The Green party

> The B.C. Conservative party

5. Who would be your second choice?

I am going to read you a series of questions and ask if you are aware or not aware of this information;

6. Are you aware or not aware that the government of B.C. has given $134 million to the medical-school facility at the University of B.C. to double the number of medical students?

7. Are you aware or not aware that the government of B.C. has put a cap on tuition at the rate of inflation, effective in September?

8. Are you aware or not aware that the government of B.C. has invested $10 million in the TRIUMF particle accelerator at UBC?

9. Are you aware or not aware that the government of B.C. has created 2,334 nurse training positions since 2001?

10. Are you aware or not aware that the government of B.C. has a program to help British Columbians be healthier by encouraging them to eat more fruit and vegetables?

11. Are you aware or not aware that the government of B.C. has invested $35 million in medical technology, including an MRI at UBC Hospital and a CTI scanner at the B.C. Cancer Agency?

12. Are you aware or not aware that the government of B.C. has created the $10-million Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC?

I am going to read you a number of statements. Please indicate whether you agree or disagree, and is that strongly or somewhat.

13. Premier Gordon Campbell has strongly supported bringing the Olympics to B.C. in 2010.

14. Premier Gordon Campbell is mean-spirited.

15. The Olympics will be good for the health of our economy.

16. It would be bad for B.C. if the NDP were elected government.

17. Gordon Campbell is doing a better job in the last year than he did in his first year.

18. Being premier is a tough job but Carole James would do a good job.

19. If the NDP win the election, union leaders like Jim Sinclair will run the province.

20. If a provincial election were held tomorrow, how would you vote in your constituency?

> For the Gordon Campbell B.C. Liberal candidate

> For the Adrianne Carr Green party candidate

> For the Carole James NDP candidate

> For the B.C. Conservative party candidate

21. What is your age?

22. What is your occupation?

23. Do you rent or own your home?

24. How long have you lived in the riding?

25. How did you vote in the last provincial election in 2001?

And why was Greg Lyle, a key B.C. Liberal election-campaign team member and former chief of staff to Premier Gordon Campbell when he was Opposition leader, suddenly removed from the campaign earlier this year? Lyle, who runs a polling company, has publicly opposed push polls, as has business partner and federal Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella.

Contacted by phone, Lyle declined to answer any questions from the Straight about his departure from the Liberal campaign team or whether or not his company, Navigator Ltd., had previously been contracted to do Liberal polling.

Despite telephone and e-mail requests from the Straight for an interview about the polling, neither Andrew Enns, vice-president of Western Opinion Research, nor Kelly Reichert, the B.C. Liberal party's executive director, had responded by press time.

If Western Opinion Research is not polling directly for the B.C. Liberal Party, it is clearly doing so for a client who supports the Campbell Liberals.

Push polling is a form of unethical negative election campaigning in which thousands of voters are asked to complete a "polling survey" but the questions are designed to change opinions by providing information negative to one political party or candidate and/or positive about that party's opponents. The caller often says he or she is calling from a polling company that actually does not exist, sometimes because it is the actual political party or its agents doing the calls.

There are laws restricting push polling in Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Ohio, and legislation to regulate and force disclosure on push polling has been introduced in the U.S. Congress with support from both parties.

The controversial pro-Liberal pol?ling methods, which one noted American political consultant told the Straight is a "half" push poll, include reading respondents a series of seven consecutive positive statements about Campbell government initiatives of potential interest to Vancouver-Point Grey voters.

It also features an imbalanced set of argument-testing questions where five of the seven statements either attack the New Democratic Party, its leader, Carole James, and B.C. unions or support the Liberals.

After reviewing the questionnaire, Seattle-based political consultant Cathy Allen told the Straight: "Half of it is a push poll and half of it isn't."

Allen said the questions that ask if respondents have heard of positive Liberal government spending and programs are clearly biased to influence opinion.

"Every time you ask a question 'Are you aware or not?', that's nothing but a push poll. Yes or no questions are classic for push polls," said Allen, a key Democratic party strategist. "This is a cumulative effect of saying, 'The Liberals are doing good things and the NDP are doing bad things.'"

Push polling has become a significant problem in the United States, according to Mick Couper, chair of the standards committee of the American Association for Public Opinion Research and a professor at the University of Michigan's survey research centre.

"I've had a lot of complaints in the U.S. election of push polling," Couper told the Straight. Speaking generally about unusual polling questions, he said: "If it sounds fishy, it probably is fishy."

"One key determinant is the number of people being surveyed," Couper said. "If [those conducting the pro-Liberal polling] are not willing to divulge this information, you should write a column exposing this. Public exposure is the best weapon people have, especially at the local level."

Canadian pollsters are also concerned about polls conducted by political parties that do not meet the code of ethics and standards of the industry, said Nik Nanos, president-elect of the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, which represents major polling firms in Canada.

"One thing that we see increasingly is campaigns calling and pretending to be pollsters," Nanos said in an interview from Ottawa. "Obviously, when a campaign calls they aren't subject to [MRIA] standards and the code of ethics."

The cost of the Liberal polling can't be measured without knowing the number of people called, but one Canadian pollster said that the price per completed call would be between $15 and $25.

That means that in Vancouver-Point Grey alone, a survey of 400 voters would cost between $6,000 and $10,000.

So even if the Liberals were merely running a small and biased poll in all 79 B.C. ridings, the costs could be estimated at between $474,000 and $790,000.

But push polling generally is aimed at large numbers of voters. If the poll were targeted to, say, 2,000 key swing voters per riding, those costs could dramatically escalate into the millions.

The remaining question is whether or not the B.C. Liberal push to win the May 17 election is being aided by controversial "push polling". More next week. -

Bill Tieleman is president of West Star Communications and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio's Early Edition. E-mail him at