Candidates give lackluster response to political opinions survey

Sunday, August 31, 2008 | 6:35 p.m. CDT; updated 1:09 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 1, 2008

COLUMBIA - Project Vote Smart, a 20-year-old organization dedicated to collecting and distributing information about candidates for political office at all levels, has had a lackluster response from state and local candidates to its "Political Courage Test."

The test is an online survey that seeks candidates' opinions on issues such as abortion, taxes, crime, education, environment, guns and health care. Each topic includes a set of subsequent questions — mostly yes/no or multiple choice — that are intended to give voters a quick but detailed glance at their candidates' positions.

See for yourself

To see federal and state candidates’ responses to Project Vote Smart’s “Political Courage Test,” go to

The survey is mailed to all registered candidates. Responses received by a certain deadline are posted on its Web site so that the public can access them. Voters who enter their ZIP codes at the Project Vote Smart site can get a list of all the candidates in federal and state races for their area. By clicking on the candidate's name, the user can learn whether the candidate responded to the test. A candidate can choose to leave up to 30 percent of the questions unanswered but must answer at least 70 percent before their responses will be posted.

Some candidates, however, refuse to complete the survey. In the Missouri gubernatorial race, for example, four of the seven candidates on the August primary ballot refused to complete it. Those included Republicans Kenny Hulshof and Sarah Steelman and Democrat Jay Nixon. Hulshof and Nixon won their parties' nominations. Similarly, only 42 percent of Missouri congressional candidates and only 10 percent of state legislative candidates have filled it out thus far.

Those on the November ballot have until Sept. 24 to respond.

MU political science professor John Petrocik said it's difficult for voters to rely on surveys such as Project Vote Smart's because the data are so spotty. He also said the Political Courage Test might not match some candidates' ideologies well.

"I suspect that it is viewed as an outlet for a particular subgroup of liberal and civic-minded activists," Petrocik said. "The topics in the questionnaire and the topics that are not in the questionnaire indicate that the organization has the sensibilities of those who are political liberals."

He added that candidates have little to win and a lot to lose by completing the surveys. Responding, he said, might leave them vulnerable to political attack and criticism, especially given that they are not allowed to elaborate on their answers.

Mary Still, the Democratic candidate for the 25th District seat in the Missouri House of Representatives, said that she is "swamped" with similar nationwide surveys every day. She chooses not to respond to them because she can't fully express herself.

"I am always willing to answer questions," Still said. "But I just think that the local ones come first, and I want to focus more on them."

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