Former Gov. Ben Cayetano
Former Gov. Ben Cayetano is running for Honolulu Mayor

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Push polls – you may have heard of them. These are people who call your home under the guise of polling you about your political preferences, and instead, they “push” negative information to you via questions to make you believe rumors about the candidate.

This is a common practice during Hawaii’s elections and already both former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano, a candidate for Honolulu mayor, and Honolulu City Council Member Tom Berg who is up for re-election, are reporting push polls are targeting their campaigns.

The pollster going after Cayetano claimed when he was governor from 1994 to 2002, he laid off huge numbers of state workers, took away health benefits from teachers and raised taxes on the middle class. The pollsters will not identify themselves or who their client is.

Cayetano, a Democrat, is challenging incumbent Mayor Peter Carlisle and former City Managing Director Kirk Caldwell in the non-partisan race. Both Carlisle and Caldwell are supportive of the city’s $5.3 billion elevated steel on steel rail project, while Cayetano maintains the cost is too high, and the project is too ugly, and he plans to stop it. Cayetano wants to focus on rehabilitating the city’s dilapidated infrastructure including the water system, the sewer system and the roads, and that will cost the city about $12 billion to $15 billion, he said.

Cayetano has a considerable lead in two recent media polls, and conservative talk show host Rick Hamada of KHVH News Radio 830 AM, said with so much money at stake, supporters of the project are doing whatever they can to make sure it is built, including targeting Cayetano’s candidacy.

Cayetano said he knows the “client” paying for the push polling is the Pacific Resource Partnership, an organization supporting the rail project that claims to have more than 200 contractor members. Pacific Resource Partnership has been one of the key backers and funders of the pro-rail campaign.

Calls to John White, the executive director for the Pacific Resource Partnership, to confirm his organization’s involvement, were not immediately returned on Monday morning.

Pacific Resource Partnership, along with another newly formed group, Move Oahu Forward, have launched an all out public relations campaign to promote the rail even though construction on the rail’s columns started last week.

That is because the project is losing popularity with Oahu voters, with just over 30 percent supporting the project and more than 50 percent opposing it. Honolulu Council Budget Chair Ann Kobayashi said the rail is declining in popularity because those who narrowly approved the construction of the project in 2008 believed the rail would cost $3.7 billion, extend to the Salt Lake community and go as far as the University of Hawaii but in fact the project is now slated to cost $5.3 billion and no longer extends to either Salt Lake or the University.

City Council Member Tom Berg - Photo: Emily Metcalf

Berg, who also is opposing the current rail steel on steel rail system, obtained a copy of the push poll targeting him, and posted it to YouTube so he could demonstrate how “vile” the calls can be. Here is the link to listen to the actual call made. Berg told Hawaii Reporter “it gets juicy at the 3:30 mark.” Hear the call here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bj7sihmjxeQ

Berg, who represents District 1, and is being challenged this election by at least two well known, pro rail candidates – State Rep. Kymberly Pine, a Republican, and former State Rep. Alex Santiago, a Democrat – said: “The pollster exclaims the smack came from the candidates about each other. I refute this and all other claims made about me and this poll. This sickens me.”

“Constituents called me about this, knowing it was false. These political tactics should be stopped and a company of this kind should be investigated,” Berg explained. The answers in the video he posted were edited out to protect the privacy of the person being called.

The pollster in Berg’s case would not disclose where the “facts” came from or who was paying for the poll. But Berg traced the number, which is 231-224-2032to a man named Jerry Shears, with the Mountain West Research Center in Pocatello, Idaho. The company also is operating as Hawaii Opinion Research, Berg said. Neither company is registered to do business in Hawaii.

This is the same phone number – 231-224-2032 – a Cayetano supporter said the push poll smearing Cayetano is coming from. Those calling the number get a message that “the call cannot be completed as dialed.” But Hawaii Reporter called the Mountain West Research Company in Idaho, which said on its web site it has been operating since 1995, and found Shears is not longer with the company.

According to a publication called America’s Watch Tower, the “Mountain West Research–a group conducting polling for the Paul Hodes campaign–was fined $20,ooo for conducting this push poll ending once and for all the false notion that Paul Hodes was simply conducting “market research” and proving that his campaign was actually engaged in an illegal push poll against Kelly Ayotte.”

Attorney General Michael Delaney, following an investigation, announced “Mountain West Research made calls that fall under the state’s legal definition of push polling, but did not provide necessary disclosures required by statute.”

Delaney said those disclosures include “that the telephone call is being made on behalf of, in support of, or in opposition to a particular candidate,” that the candidate be identified and the telephone number from where the push polling is conducted.”

Hawaii Reporter was able to reach someone named “Jesse” at the Mountain West Research Group. Here is a transcript of the call.

Malia Zimmerman: “I am trying to reach someone who can speak to me about calls you are making in Hawaii about Hawaii elections.”

Operator: “Let me transfer you.”

Jesse: “This is Jesse, what can I do for you?”

Malia Zimmerman: This is Malia Zimmerman calling from Hawaii Reporter in Hawaii. I am calling because candidates here in Hawaii running for office in two different offices have claimed that your company is polling in Hawaii. Is that true?”

Jesse: “I can neither confirm nor deny – nor deny – that. What company did you say you were with?”

Malia Zimmerman: “HawaiiReporter.com – There are claims are that some representatives from your company are actually doing push polling and saying some pretty vile things about both Ben Cayetano who is running for the mayor’s office and Tom Berg who is running for city council.”

Jesse: “We don’t conduct any push polling.”

Malia Zimmerman: “You don’t conduct any push polling? But your company has been fined for that in the past.”

Jesse: “What is your contact information?”

Malia Zimmerman: “My number is 808-306-3161 and my name is Malia Zimmerman and my email is Malia@hawaiireporter.com –  The numbers that have shown up trace back to your company so there is no point in denying that your company is involved. The question is are you doing push polling? We actually have copies of the polls and they are pretty harsh. So I would like a response about that please.”

Jesse: “Thank you very much for your call. I will look into it and discuss it with my client.”

Like Hawaii Reporter, Berg contacted the Idaho polling company. He could not find any information on Hawaii Opinion Research, the company he said is affiliated with the Idaho company. Hawaii Reporter also could not find any record of such a company.

Berg threatened to file a lawsuit against the company if the calls continue.

“They said among other lies that I forced my staff to use city resources to campaign on city time. That did not happen,” Berg said.

Berg said if the group conducting the poll should take responsibility for the call as other clients of pollsters do.

Neal Milner, a political analyst for several media in Hawaii and the Head Ombuds Officer at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, said there are at least two reasons that such push polls are harmful.

“First, they are misleading, and, second, they make people more cynical about polling and consequently less likely to respond to polls.”

He said sometimes the difference between a push poll and more legitimate poll is blurred.

“For example, a candidate may use a poll to test how people react to negative statements about him/herself or the opponent–like testing the effect of an opponent’s message,” Milner said.

“The juicy part of the Berg poll starts like it may be going off in that direction,” Milner said. “Berg is probably just as interested in knowing the impact of the story of his APEC conduct as his opponents are. Nevertheless, legitimate pollsters and public opinion hate push polls. They seem them as misleading and unethical.”

Editor’s note: If you receive a push poll, take careful notes or record the call and send it to Hawaii Reporter so we can help get to the bottom of who is behind these candidate smears. Contact us at 808-306-3161 and Malia@hawaiireporter.com

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Hawaii Reporter is an award-winning, independent Hawaii-based news and opinion journal founded in 2001 and launched in February 2002. The journal's staff have won a number of top awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including the top investigative news reporting awards, business reporting awards, government reporting awards, and online news reporting awards. Hawaii Reporter has a weekly television news show, News Behind the News, which airs on Mondays at 1:30 p.m. and Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m.