Breitbart Texas Investigates: How ‘Survey Programs’ Can Dupe Voters
With the primary for the U.S. Senate race just around the corner, tens of thousands of Texans began receiving ominous mailings in the past week from a Virginia-based group called Public Advocate for the United States. The mailers, sent by both email and traditional mail, attacked Sen. John Cornyn and promoted challenger Rep. Steve Stockman on issues of family.
The mailers began:
What is John Cornyn hiding?
I’m shocked to report this, but Texas’ incumbent Republican Senator John Cornyn is refusing to answer his family values survey.
Unlike Texas Congressman Steve Stockman, who returned his on time and answered 100% pro-Family.
It is effective political copywriting, designed to hook voters looking for an alternative to Sen. Cornyn. Congressman Stockman has emerged as the leading contender to unseat Cornyn and the three page mailer provides good fodder for his campaign, raising doubts about the commitment to family values of any candidate who did not fill out the survey for Public Advocate.
This is not a story about the respective political positions of Stockman, Cornyn, or any other U.S. Senate primary candidate.
Beyond the specific political positions, however, the mailer is actually a glimpse into the modern techniques of political persuasion; a world that the vast majority of voters are only dimly aware of.
The tactic is known to political insiders as a "survey program." The use of surveys from third party groups is not just a longstanding, successful modus operandi, but it is also something of a cottage industry; a way for obscure political groups with access to large mailing lists but almost no staff or overhead to raise large amounts of money for themselves and steer voters to specific candidates.
While the basic idea of a survey program is perfectly legal and often legitimate, most citizens have no idea how the survey program technique works. Moreover, busy voters often have no idea who is really behind any given survey program that pops into their inboxes.
In the specific case of the mailer that went out last week, the Public Advocate letter gave the appearance of coming from a disinterested, objective source. Texas voters had no way of knowing that Public Advocate's Eugene Delgaudio has a longstanding, close working relationship with top Stockman staffer Donny Ferguson.
The letter had no disclosure that Ferguson worked for Delgaudio as a staffer in Virginia for five years nor did Texas voters have any way of knowing that Donny Ferguson knew all about the Survey Program game himself, since Ferguson had run survey programs in past elections in Virginia and Montana.
In this two part special report; Breitbart Texas will explain how survey programs function in politics and then how the Public Advocate mailing to affect the Texas primary raises some troubling questions.
How Survey Programs Work
Just as smart consumers like to know what rip-offs to watch out for in the marketplace, an informed electorate should understand the promotional schemes that organizations and politicians use to get themselves elected.
The concept behind a survey program is simple: a group creates a short survey on an issue they care about, sends it out to candidates and then reports the results. Voters read the reports, make up their own minds and cast their ballots.
Established, well-known political groups on the left and right do survey programs all the time. It is common to see press releases where groups rate candidates based on responses to survey questionnaires.
Survey programs are commonplace and at first glance, seeming perfectly fair. The popularity of legitimate, ethical survey programs has ironically created an atmosphere where people and groups trying to game the survey system have been able to flourish.
After all, all the survey program does is ask candidates to answer a few simple questions and then they promote the results.
As it turns out, there are a number of methods that allow the unscrupulous to fool voters using a survey program.
One strategy is to create a group that gives the appearance of being an independent issue advocacy organization, but it is actually a front entity for a candidate. Political insiders often refer to these groups as "paper tigers."
Assume a candidate wants to appear to have the endorsement of a pro-gun rights group but cannot get a well-known established organization like the National Rifle Association to promote the specific candidate. No problem; just create a separate group or utilize an already existing paper tiger group.
Paper tiger groups can just give candidates an outright endorsement—or, for the sake of subtlety and the appearance of objectivity, create a survey and send it out to candidates. To avoid getting caught, groups cannot just send it out only to one candidate, although that has been known to happen. Therefore, they send the survey out to all candidates but even then it's still possible to game the system.
Candidates receive dozens of surveys and generally do not fill them all out. One veteran campaign manager told Breitbart Texas their policy is to respond to all surveys, but that many political newcomers do not do this.
A paper tiger group that actually wants to stealth-support a specific candidate knows their candidate will answer the survey and hope other candidates do not respond. A non-response allows the group to say "What are they hiding?" and assign convenient motives to a rival candidate.
A candidate's positions on issues can often be determined by their own statements, actions and votes. If Senator Ted Cruz does not fill out an obscure group's Obamacare survey, that does not mean his position on Obamacare is a mystery or that he is hiding something.
One way of getting candidates to not want to fill out surveys is to pepper the them with a couple of "gotcha questions," that makes the other campaigns suspect there is something strange at play and are therefore less inclined to fill out the survey.
Once the group has sent the survey out and receive either responses or silence, they drop their announcement of the survey results. If the group does not have resources like a large mailing list, then the survey will amount to little.
However, some of the obscure groups may look small on paper but actually have massive resources behind them in terms of money and mailing lists. That is when a candidate who did not fill out the survey feels the wrath and gets accusing of "hiding" or worse.
Since these mailings are timed to happen right before an election, there is usually little time for the voters or the media to properly vet survey letters. This, of course, is the intended effect.
In Part II, Breitbart Texas will address the Public Advocate mailing in the U.S. Senate Race in Texas specifically.
The image above is reflective of Public Advocate for the United States' past survey operations in other states.
Follow Lee Stranahan on Twitter @Stranahan