Becky Vanlandingham doesn’t need to answer a poll to prove she’s a Democrat.
“All these years I’ve been active in the Democratic Party,” said Vanlandingham, “all these years in politics since I was a child.”
Her great-grandparents were friends of President Harry S. Truman. She served breakfast to former Gov. John Dalton. She even married a relative of former state Sen. Basey Vanlandingham.
Last week, Vanlandingham got a phone call and agreed to participate in what seemed to be a political poll. After she was asked for her views on the presidential election, the female caller asked who she preferred in the Ninth District state representative race between Republican Jeff Hedberg and Democrat Wes Shoemyer.
The tone of the call changed after Vanlandingham indicated she liked Shoemyer, a candidate for whom she distributed fliers in 2000, she said. Suddenly the caller was alleging Shoemyer had failed to support funding for highways and had conspired to withhold money for education. Vanlandingham interrupted and demanded to know who was conducting the survey and whether the caller was a volunteer.
After indicating she was from Iowa, the caller stammered and hung up.
“I got mad too soon and didn’t get enough information,” Vanlandingham said.
Vanlandingham, who doesn’t even live in Shoemyer’s district, isn’t the only person upset by so-called “push polls.” Several candidates for Missouri House seats are angry about what they say are political attacks masquerading as legitimate polls.
Shoemyer doesn’t know who’s responsible for the calls. “It’s very hard to track. It’s someone not supportive of Wes Shoemyer, and somebody supportive of Jeff Hedberg.”
Hedberg denied any prior knowledge of the push poll — “I don’t have the funds to do that” — but said it’s exciting that someone is interested in the race.
Missouri Republican Party spokesman Paul Sloca said he had no information about the calls but that people who contact voters on behalf of campaigns should identify themselves.
“I think push polls only serve the purpose of the person doing the pushing,” Sloca said, “because voters understand they’re being lead down a particular path.”
Shoemyer said push polls have targeted other candidates in north-central Missouri, including Democrat Tom Shively in the Eighth District.
“To me, most of it is lies,” Shively said. “That’s what disturbing. … They’re definitely trying to convince people in the Eighth District that I’m an evil person.”
Shively doesn’t know who’s behind the polls but noted his Republican opponent, Kathy Chinn, has also been targeted and said he condemns the practice.
Hedberg noted that he, too, was the subject of such surveys when he ran against Shoemyer in 2002.
Shively said push polls should be regulated. “In some point in time, those groups need to be registered by the ethics commission, and maybe samples of the questions need to be presented as part of a report,” he said. “I think that would solve the problem, although I don’t want to go against free speech.”
Democrat Judy Baker, who’s running for 25th District state representative in Columbia, said she received three dozen complaints about a push poll targeting her. Her former opponent, Republican Joel Jeffries, could not be reached for comment. He dropped out of the race earlier this week to accept a position on the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole.
Baker said push polls are less effective in local races. “In the one that hit on me, so many people knew me personally, they recognized the poll to be quite transparent. Some of them even pushed back against the interviewers.”
Vanlandingham said she welcomes pollsters’ calls to her home because she’s involved in politics, but she doesn’t appreciate being bothered by callers she feels are slandering a candidate.
“I just think somebody should be accountable to these,” she said. “Nobody seems to know who’s responsible.”