DIRTY TRICKS: Mysterious Conservative Group Sending Out Push Polls In South Carolina Special Election

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"DIRTY TRICKS: Mysterious Conservative Group Sending Out Push Polls In South Carolina Special Election"

Left: Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D). Right: Mark Sanford (R). (Credit: ABC News)

HILTON HEAD, South Carolina — A mysterious conservative group has been placing highly-misleading phone calls to South Carolina voters, trying to dissuade them from voting for the Democrat in an upcoming congressional special election.

South Carolina has a reputation for dirty tricks, and next week’s special election between former Gov. Mark Sanford (R) and businesswoman Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D) is no exception. One of the most popular tactics is known as “push polling,” whereby a group calls up voters under the guise of conducting a poll, only to ask questions that leave the voter with a highly-misleading impression about a certain candidate.

ThinkProgress spoke with multiple individuals in South Carolina’s first congressional district who have received push polls from an unknown conservative group that only referred to itself as “SSI Polling”.

April Wolford, a middle-aged woman who has long been active in Democratic politics in the state, was one. At 12:55pm on February 25th, Wolford’s cell phone lit up with “Unavailable” on the caller ID screen. A young man without a discernible accent – “he certainly wasn’t from South Carolina,” she noted – said he was conducting a poll and began with general questions about the race. “But they quickly got slanted,” Wolford noted, “and they didn’t ask a single question about Sanford at all!”

As the conversation turned, she asked him where he was calling from. “SSI Polling,” he told her, but wouldn’t elaborate.

The questions they did ask ranged from outlandish smears to thinly-veiled Republican talking points. Here are some of the issues SSI brought up in various iterations of the push poll, according to those ThinkProgress spoke with:

- “What would you think of Elizabeth Colbert Busch if I told you she had had an abortion?

- “What would you think of Elizabeth Colbert Busch if I told you a judge held her in contempt of court at her divorce proceedings?

- “What would you think of Elizabeth Colbert Busch if she had done jail time?

- “What would you think of Elizabeth Colbert Busch if I told you she was caught running up a charge account bill?

- “What would you think of Elizabeth Colbert Busch if she supported the failed stimulus plan?”

- “What would you think of Elizabeth Colbert Busch if I told you unions contributed to her campaign?”

After about a half dozen of these questions, Wolford began to challenge the caller for asking such absurd questions. He apologized, telling her, “ma’am, I’m just paid to ask questions.” When Wolford asked who all he was calling, he demurred, saying he “just had to call the numbers they gave him.” She told ThinkProgress she suspects the calls were targeted towards Democratic women to try to discourage them from voting.

ThinkProgress spoke with April’s friend Flo Rosse who also received the push poll. She recounted a similar call with a young woman who began by asking standard questions but quickly moved toward those obviously meant to smear Colbert Busch. Rosse asked the caller three times who she was calling on behalf of, but, as she told ThinkProgress, “the pollster kept saying the name really fast so I couldn’t get it.” Disgusted, Flo hung up after just a few questions.

“It was so horrible,” Wolford said of the experience. “So ugly.”

Update

It’s unclear if these push polls are still continuing. If you or anyone you know have received a push poll, let us know at tips@thinkprogress.org.

Update

Survey Sampling International, a Connecticut-based market research firm, confirmed that they have been involved in placing calls to voters in South Carolina. ThinkProgress spoke with Survey Sampling International’s General Counsel Ashlin Quirk on Wednesday, and she confirmed that phone calls containing similar content — including questions about Colbert Busch’s divorce and possible credit card debt — have been placed into the district within the last few weeks on behalf of a third party, though not during the time frame given by Wofford or Rosse. Quirk would not confirm who the third party was, citing confidentiality. She said that her version of the call script did not contain any questions about a possible abortion, but acknowledged that other versions of the script may have been used.

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