Two local Democrats vying for Paul Weissman’s seat in the Colorado House are trading barbs over what some claim is a negative campaign tactic known as a “push poll.”
Weissman, who is term-limited, is a Louisville Democrat representing House District 12, which includes Lafayette, Louisville and part of Longmont.
Lafayette resident Jake Williams has alleged that his opponent in the Aug. 10 Democratic primary, Matt Jones of Louisville, had run a push poll the week of May 31 in an effort to leave negative impressions of Williams in voters’ minds.
A push poll is couched as a way to test campaign messages, but its intent is to sway voters by associating a candidate with negative labels. For example, in the Longmont City Council election last fall, some accused a group supporting Katie Witt of targeting her opponent, Karen Benker, in a push poll. The poll asked questions like “If you knew that Karen Benker discriminated against a Christian church organization unfairly based on their religion, would that make you more or less favorable toward her?” Williams, who edged Jones 53 percent to 47 percent at the Democratic Assembly in April, issued a news release on June 3 claiming that Jones’ poll asked voters whether they would be less likely to vote for a candidate if they knew he had been a “labor lobbyist.”
Williams previously served as a legislative advocate for the labor organization Service Employees International Union.
Democratic activist Maria Handley is quoted in the statement as having received one of the polling calls.
“The polling sounded slanted, so I hope this isn’t a prelude to a negative primary season,” she says.
Asked for a response, the Jones campaign issued a statement of its own, saying that Williams “recklessly and knowingly fabricated information” about Jones’ campaign. Jones says Handley “has either forgotten what she heard on the phone or is willfully misrepresenting the facts.”
“In my previous service in the Colorado House I was charged with supervising numerous legislative races,” Jones says. “I know what a push poll is, and we didn’t tolerate them then, and I would not be a party to them today. The real question is why would Jake think being a ‘labor lobbyist’ is a negative in a Democratic primary?” Jones also provided the text of the question cited by Williams. Voters are asked to assess descriptions of “the candidates for state representative,” saying whether each phrase would make them more or less likely to vote for the person.
Jones says in his release that it is a class 2 misdemeanor to recklessly make false claims about an opponent in an election. Stephanie Walton of the Jones campaign said that rather than press charges, the campaign would accept a written apology from Williams.
“We understand the strain of the campaign perhaps made Mr. Williams overeager, which generated into an overheated attack from his campaign,” Walton said. “His lack of experience is no excuse for this behavior, or for not knowing Colorado election law.”
Williams responded by quoting others who received the survey calls and viewed them as negative campaigning.
“It was a push poll,” Dwight High of Lafayette said. “The questioner was clearly trying to influence my opinion about Jake by associating Jake’s name with different labels.”
“It certainly seemed to me that the poll was intended to help spread negative messages about Jake,” added John Bigger of Longmont.
Williams, 32, told Boulder Weekly that, in addition to the “labor lobbyist” label, voters were asked how they would feel about a candidate who wants to raise their taxes, who has a lack of experience and is under the age of 50.
Williams maintains that he didn’t break the law.
“I’m happy to have my opponent spending money on push polls and lawyers and not talking to voters,” he says.
Jones told Boulder Weekly that he hasn’t decided whether to take legal action if Williams doesn’t apologize. He stresses that the poll question did not mention either candidate by name. Jones says that unlike his survey, push polls are typically conducted right before an election and target a large group of people.
Jones points to a Wikipedia definition of push polls that says the term is “sometimes used inaccurately to refer to legitimate polls which test political messages, some of which may be negative.”