Mysterious Poll in 3rd District Generates Investigation
Unknown Group Masquerades as COLAB in Phone Survey for Supervisor Race
The District Attorney’s Office is looking into the origins of a political poll apparently portrayed as sponsored by the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business (better known as COLAB), which the organization vehemently denied.
Two weeks ago, a Santa Ynez Valley woman received a call from a pollster, who first asked her opinion of the national political landscape. If the election were held tomorrow, the caller asked, would she support Hillary Clinton? Donald Trump? Gary Johnson? Jill Stein? Then she was asked her political party registration and how often she voted. From there, the questions narrowed to Santa Barbara County politics, specifically the 3rd District supervisorial race between Bruce Porter and Joan Hartmann.
According to the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the caller asked about her likelihood to vote for either candidate after first describing Porter, a retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer endorsed by Republicans, and Hartmann, a Democratic Party-backed retired professor and Environmental Protection Agency attorney, in a neutral way, though with a slightly more favorable description of Porter.
The survey taker shifted the conversation — weirdly, the woman said — to a series of question about the oil industry: opinion of oil companies, specifically naming Phillips 66, position on exporting oil, and California’s unsuccessful plan to eventually reduce its available oil and gas by 50 percent.
Next, the caller specifically asked her position on Andy Caldwell, executive director of COLAB, which the woman also found strange. When she asked who sponsored the poll, the surveyor replied COLAB, according to the woman.
Upon hearing this, Caldwell filed a complaint with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office and the California Fair Political Practices Commission. In an interview, Caldwell speculated the pollster could be sponsored by Hartmann’s campaign or an independent group trying to gauge how a particular issue influences 3rd District voters. So-called push polls pretend to gather information but are really trying to influence voters’ perception of candidates. It is unclear if that was the intent in this case. “If they wanted to do it for Porter, it backfired,” Caldwell said, calling the poll either devious or stupid.
Hartmann’s campaign manager, Mary Rose, denied any involvement and noted an independent expenditure committee has not been set up for the candidate.
Porter, however, does have an independent expenditure committee — “Keep Santa Barbara County Working, a Committee sponsored by energy producers to elect Bruce Porter” — set up for him. It has raised $60,000. As of June, half of that was left. When asked, Porter said he does not have any contact with that group. Porter also denied having anything to do with the poll.
The telephone number of the caller traces back to an online polling firm based in Florida, according to an online blog. An employee for the firm identified as Lisa wrote on the blog, “We use a computer dialer system to call landline phones and we manually dial cell phones to achieve compliance with the FCC and TCPA [Telephone Consumer Protection Act]. Our company does not leave messages because our main goal is to acquire the opinions of the general public on various topics and political matters. Our interviewers arrange for a call backs at another time.”
The post continued, “The National Do Not Call list does not apply to research companies because we are not selling anything, or collecting money of any kind. The only purpose of our company is to gather the opinions of the public and aggregate data from those opinions. Every survey we conduct is collected confidentially and the purposes of the calls are strictly for research by our various clients. Our company has an internal Do Not Call List and if you tell any interviewer to put you on that list they will be happy to do so.”
Meanwhile, others, including Porter’s mother, a registered Democrat, got calls from pollsters in recent weeks, though the caller did not say who sponsored it. Another 3rd District voter said she got a call from a pollster who did not ask questions about oil and described both candidates in very neutral way.