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Who is behind the 'push poll' attacking Alison Redford?

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Alberta Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith

Who is behind the sleazy "push poll" that's got home telephones throughout Alberta ringing?

A push poll, for those of you who have not yet stumbled across the term, is a political campaigning technique in which a political party or interest group attempts to change the opinions of the people whom they contact by pretending to conduct a poll.

Usually push polls are designed to smear opposing politicians by suggesting something nasty about them, things that often have enough truth to them to make them dangerous but which occasionally are outright fabrications.

Even when they are founded in truth, push polls are designed to attack and not to elicit and tabulate actual opinions -- hence, there's usually little effort made to actually measure and analyze the responses that the questioners who interrupt your quiet time at home may hear.

The push poll currently doing the rounds in Alberta asks two questions designed to push "respondents" (that is, the message audience) toward a particular conclusion about Progressive Conservative Premier Alison Redford -- and, eventually, in the direction of a particular action or non-action in the polling booth. There are some other questions, too, of the standard "who's-winning-the-horserace" variety, say Albertans who have been phoned.

One of the push-poll's questions asks respondents something like this: "The Globe and Mail reported that Alison Redford supported Stephane Dion's multi-billion-dollar child care program and not Stephen Harper's plan to give families a choice. How does that affect your opinion of Alison Redford?"

The obvious goal here is to paint Premier Redford as "anti-family" in that wonderful way neo-Cons, including neo-Cons who support Redford it must be noted, call programs that would help families "anti-family" and those that hurt them "pro-family."

It also tries to imply that she is a big-time "tax and spend" type, as in the phrase "tax and spend liberal." Never mind that it's always so-called "conservatives" who want to hose away our billions by spending like drunken sailors on unneeded stealth fighters, unnecessary prisons and giveaways to billionaires.

The second question tries to get at Redford from another angle, asking something like: "Alison Redford's chief of staff is not abiding by a court order to repay a $600,000 debt. How does that affect your opinion of Alison Redford?"

This is a reference to a story broken by the Calgary Sun that a company owned by Redford's just-appointed chief of staff, political strategist Stephen Carter, owed the substantial sum to contractors including the University of Calgary for events run by the firm. A report in the Sun earlier this month said Carter had nothing to say on this matter, which one could argue is not the best political strategy for dealing with a situation like this. Be that as it may, while the criticism implied by the question may be legitimate, the technique is designed to deceive respondents.

Which brings us back to the question about all this that really matters: who is behind it?

Historically in North America, of course, push polls are much more likely to be used by the parties of the right than those of the centre and left. They were a technique favoured by Karl Rove, the scorched-earth mastermind behind the campaigns of George W. Bush and other politicians nurtured by the American 1 per cent. Rove is much admired by the Canadian right. But you really can't put this sort of thing beyond anyone nowadays.

Arguably, any opposition party in Alberta stands to gain from anything that sows seeds of doubt about Redford's capabilities or her appropriateness for the job.

That said, I am confident this poll was commissioned by neither the New Democrats nor the Alberta Party -- because its message makes no sense from either party's perspective, and because both parties categorically and convincingly deny having anything to do with it. Indeed, I broke my promise to do no actual research until someone pays me for this stuff, and contacted them all, except the Tories, of course, who ex officio are off he hook.

The same logic can be applied to the Alberta Liberals -- even though they are now led by a former Conservative, it seems unlikely they'd include an attack on a former federal Liberal leader in a question -- although the caucus spokesman I talked to, the only Liberal I could reach, refused to speak for the party. 

Regardless, none of these three parties has the funds to waste on this kind of thing at a time when they may soon have a pressing need to pay for election signs.

Which leaves one party as Suspect No. 1, to wit, the well-funded Wildrose Party led by Danielle Smith.

It's the only party in Alberta that these particular questions are likely to benefit significantly. And the senior Wildroser I talked to was precise and nuanced in his response. He's not involved in polling, you see -- he does other things for the party.

This kind of evidence isn't going to get a conviction, even in the court of Alberta public opinion, which has notoriously low standards. Plus, of course, it's always possible the poll is being done by some independent of semi-independent group of Swift Boaters.

Nevertheless, in this light, Question No. 2 is interesting because Carter and his company's financial issues present a particular problem for the Wildrose Party. After all, they hired him first, before Redford or the government of Alberta did, and any attack against him that proves effective could rub off on them too.

No doubt they're looking for ways to get at him that will stick only to their opponent on the right, the Redford Tories.

Either way, if they can develop one of these issues into a wedge that divides Redford's supporters and drives some of them to the right, or even just persuades some of them to stay home on voting day, the Wildrose Party will benefit. Indeed, the Wildrose Party even benefits if they can persuade some electors to move to a more left-wing party, as that could create vote-splitting opportunities in many constituencies. A potential target for this kind of thinking: small-l liberals who shelled out $5 to join the Tories and vote for whom they saw as the least offensive candidate for premier.

We may never find out who is behind this push poll, of course. Don't expect the people who are doing it to fess up very willingly.

In the next few days, look for a new poll published for a political party, even if the publisher makes no reference to the two push questions. And look for polls by companies that you've never heard of before, since it's unlikely a legitimate pollster would ask questions like these.

This post also appears on david Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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