Political pollsters call residents Voters question questions, motives

The next Secaucus municipal elections are more than a year away. But according to some voters the 2009 campaign season is already underway.

Last week, four residents reported that they received telephone calls from pollsters seeking their opinions on various local and national leaders, and Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell confirmed that the local Democratic Party has conducted an opinion survey recently.

That some type of telephone survey took place the first week of Oct. is evident. All agreement ends there, however.

Elwell maintains that the telephone survey was a “typical poll, no different than others we’ve conducted in previous years before major elections.”

Two residents who were interviewed, however, stated that the survey was a “pro-Elwell, anti-[Town Councilman Michael] Gonnelli” poll meant to elicit favorable opinions about the mayor and his leadership over the past four years.

Two other residents who received phone calls from pollsters declined to participate in the survey, so were unable to answer questions about the nature of the poll.

Elwell and Gonnelli have been at odds politically in recent years and it is widely believed that the Independent Town Councilman will take on the Democratic Elwell for the mayoral seat next November.


“Here’s what was suspicious, every question was lead with something like, ‘The mayor got the new public library built.’ Would that tend to make you more likely or less likely to vote for him again,” said one resident who participated in the full survey and asked not to be identified.

“Another question was, ‘The mayor successfully got the porn convention out of town. Would that make you more likely or less likely to vote for him again?’ All the questions were like that.” Other questions he said dealt with the recent civil lawsuit against the town involving the gay couple who were allegedly harassed by some volunteer firefighters, the ongoing legal wrangling over Damascus Bakery, and the town’s budget.

Another resident who also responded to the full survey said, “I know one question was something like, ‘This year, taxes in the town went up due to budget matters that are beyond the town’s control. But before this year taxes in Secaucus didn’t go up. Would that make you more likely or less likely to re-elect Elwell?’ Everything was phrased to make the mayor look good,” he stated.

Both men referenced a question that noted the town’s occasional frictions with the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC), noted that Gonnelli is an NJMC commissioner, then asked if that fact would make the voter more or less likely to support Gonnelli in an election.

Neither resident could remember if this question specifically referenced Gonnelli’s likely run for mayor next year.

“I know there’s a name for these kind of polls,” one resident noted. “I just can’t remember what they’re called.”

He was likely referring to “push polls.”

Was it a push poll?

Frowned upon by such established polling companies as Gallup, Zogby, and others, push polls are considered suspect because the questions asked are leading and clearly indicate to the respondent what the “correct” answer should be.

Legitimate pollsters ask open-ended questions. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers. And the questions must be neutral.

A legitimate pollster might, for example, ask, “In your opinion, which presidential candidate is best able to address the current economic crisis?”

Push polls, in contrast, will often preface questions with biased information – and sometimes misinformation – about one candidate. Push pollsters, for instance, may say, “Gov. John Doe was a police officer for 25 years and served several years as a police captain. Who do you believe is best able to address rising crime in our state, Gov. John Doe or his opponent Susan Q. Public?”

In this example the “right’ answer clearly is Gov. Doe.

According to the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), push polls are often conducted to skew the results.

In the organization’s official statement on push polls, AAPOR notes that, “a so-called ‘push’ poll is an insidious form of negative campaigning, disguised as a political poll. ‘Push polls’ are not surveys at all, but rather unethical political telemarketing – telephone calls disguised as research that aim to persuade large numbers of voters and affect election outcomes rather than measure opinions.”

“Uniformly negative or positive descriptions of a candidate or issue,” pollsters who are vague about the name of the company conducting the survey, and who give evasive answers when asked for additional information about the poll are other hallmarks of push polls, according to AAPOR.

‘Standard poll’

Last week, Elwell said the residents interviewed had mischaracterized the poll and the questions asked. And he added that the residents interviewed by the Reporter were likely Gonnelli supporters who were trying to generate favorable media coverage for the Town Councilman. He said he has not seen a list of the specific questions that were asked and has not yet received results from the poll. The mayor also stated that he did not know the name of the company that conducted the poll or how many residents were called.

Five residents who were called at random by the Reporter said they did not receive calls from the pollsters and some were not even aware of the telephone survey.

However, Elwell said, “Polls are done all the time and this one was certainly no different than many others we’ve done in the past.”

He said the purpose of the poll was to gauge public opinion of Democratic leaders in Hudson County and Secaucus.

“I believe there were questions about State Assemblywoman Joan Quigley (D-32nd Dist.), State Assemblyman Nick Sacco (D-32nd Dist.), State Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-32nd Dist.), and the Democrats on the Town Council. There were also a couple of questions about [presidential candidates] Barack Obama and John McCain.”

“We do these polls every few years before a major election,” Elwell added, stating that next month’s presidential contest was the “major election” he was referring to, not the 2009 Secaucus mayoral race.

When reached for comment Gonnelli said he had heard about the poll from a few residents but did not receive a call himself.

Comments on this story can be sent to awright@hudsonreporter.com.


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