Cover Story: Campaign 2011 - Push Polling

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - With just one week to go until the elections here in North Carolina, campaigning is in full swing.

Now some of the push to get you to the polls is turning negative.  And we're not talking about ads on TV.

Some people may be part of this negative campaigning and not even realize it.

When you see a negative ad on TV you know what that is.  But in this negative tactic, you might not even recognize it.

It began with a phone call Jessica Ferrante of Charlotte took a couple weeks ago.

The caller claiming to be a pollster wanted to ask her some political questions about her area.  The caller asked what she thought of President Obama, Governor Perdue and about the political parties - the Democrats, Republicans and Tea Party.

Then it turned to the Charlotte mayor's race.

"They were very positive statements about Anthony Foxx and then they moved to Scott Stone and they started asking very negative things," said Ferrante.

This mother of three and one on the way wrote down on a cardboard paper some of the questions that she was asked.

She said in each case the so-called pollster presented a criticism of Stone and asked whether or not that changed her opinion of him.

Ferrante, who's not affiliated with either candidate, knew this wasn't a public opinion poll after all.

She said when the person calling changed to negative questions about Scott Stone, she knew right away this was a push poll.

And she ought to know what she's talking about.

In Annapolis, Maryland, in the House of Delegates is a Delegate by the name of Ron George, Jessica Ferrante's father.  And she says her dad's opponent used push polling against him.

"The very fact that that push polling was done and that that manner told me as a voter that that particular campaign in order to reduce themselves to coercion was a pretty low hit," Ferrante said.

UNC Charlotte political scientist Dr. Eric Heberlig said it's a tactic that's been in play in politics for decades.

"Many push polls, they don't even bother with the nicety at somewhat related to the truth.. they're just basically attack and smear the candidates," said Heberlig.

He says no one party can claim the high ground.

One of the most public examples of push polling happened in the South Carolina Presidential Primary in 2000.

It was alleged the George W. Bush campaign was behind a push poll that insinuated that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child.

Heberlig says push polls are not illegal.  Many would find them unethical.

"If you run a negative ad on TV everybody understands the motive it.  Everybody understands what it's doing and they can discount it on that basis.  Whereas it's in a public opinion poll they're more likely to accept that information because they think there's a neutral source," said Heberlig.

The Foxx campaign strongly denies it's behind the push polling.  And says it knows nothing about it.

It could have been a third-party making the calls on the campaign's behalf or something the campaign initiated.  But experts say it's usually done in a way it can't be traced back to the candidate.

Copyright 2011 WBTV. All rights reserved.