Someone hired a well-known Los Angeles political research / strategy firm to conduct a telephone opinion survey that appears to be an attempt to malign the character of Kate Sears’ Board of Supervisors challenger, Susan Kirsch.
This week, the Marin Post began getting emails and phone calls from readers, telling us about a mysterious telephone survey being conducted in Marin, regarding the candidate race for the 3rd District. They had been contacted by a company called Quantel Research and asked to participate in a survey about the Supervisor race in Marin.
The survey, which was pitched as being an "opinion poll," turned out to be something else entirely and appears to have been designed to sway voters away from supporting Board of Supervisors challenger, Susan Kirsch, and toward supporting incumbent, Kate Sears.
The Marin Post tracked down Quantel Research in Ogden Utah, and confirmed that the survey was created by the public opinion research firm of Fairbanks, Maslin, Maullin and Metz (FM3) of Los Angeles and Oakland, CA, and was being conducted by Quantel, on contract.
Quantel claimed to have no knowledge of why the poll was being done, who had commissioned it, or even anything about Marin elections or the candidates in question. They claimed, in fact, that they are intentionally kept in the dark about such things, ostensibly to not bias their work.
Considering what our readers are saying about the survey, that actually makes sense.
I have not personally been contacted to take the survey, but the outpouring of emails and comments we've been receiving complain that this "survey," which is some instances was as long as one hour, is nothing more than a thinly cloaked and highly-biased attack on the character of Marin Supervisor challenger, Susan Kirsch. Several readers have referred to it as a “hit piece” out to discredit Susan Kirsch.
This is not your normal survey, where participants are all asked the same questions and given reasonable response options, such as, I agree, I disagree, or I am neutral. This survey is "responsive" and appears to change the questions based on whether or not, or apparently until the caller gets the answers they are seeking. Those sought out answers appear to only lead to the respondents’ agreeing that they would prefer to vote for Kate Sears.
The callers are so tenacious that if for some reason the participant cannot complete all the 55+ questions, they automatically call you back again and again, to pressure you to finish the "survey" and listen to all the "information" they want to present to you. As one reader and longtime resident told us, this type of aggressive behavior is unheard of with normal public opinion polls. However, as another participant suggested, one of the reasons may be that the “script” carefully builds toward an ending that turns up the attacks on Kirsch, so they want to make sure the recipient is fully indoctrinated.
This political marketing piece, masquerading as a public opinion poll, is reported to be heavily biased toward negative statements and innuendos about candidate Kirsch's character, even going so far as to suggest, multiple times, that she is using "scare tactics to get votes" and is funded by right wing extremists and the Koch Brothers. To influence outcomes, the survey uses slight-of-hand tactics to label third party rumors as "information" being provided to help the respondent make up their mind, then asks the respondent, "based on the information you just heard (that Kirsch is backed by the Koch Brothers), how likely are you to vote for Susan Kirsch?"
All this is further evidence that this “opinion poll” is nothing more than dirty politics. But who hired FM3 to do this?
From their website, FM3 appears to be a highly successful firm, specializing in this kind of marketing and public opinion research. In preliminary queries to representatives at FM3, I was able to confirm that FM3 is not a public opinion polling firm, per se. The gentleman I spoke with at FM3 told me that they are more of a “market research” and "political strategist" firm, which created these kinds of surveys at the bequest of paying clients. I asked him if FM3 knew who the clients commissioning the work were, as opposed to Quantel, who did not. He assured me that they always knew and confirmed who the actual client was and that they were “real.” He suggested that they were usually hired by the candidate or their campaign manager or other persons connected to a campaign. However, he had no way to know how much of what was created for this campaign was the work of their firm or the work of the person who hired them.
When I asked him who did hire them to do this particular campaign, he said I needed to talk to someone higher up, and transferred me to Ms. Guerrero, Director of Operations at FM3.
I spoke with Elyse Guerrero, who seemed familiar with this particular survey. I asked her who hired FM3 to do this. She said I’d need to talk to John Fairbank, the president of FM3, about that. She said she would send him a note and took down my name and phone number.
The Marin Post sent an email directly to John Fairbank, asking him the same question. At the time of this article’s publication, we have still not received a response.
As a resident and voter in the 3rd District, I then directed the question about who hired FM3 to create this survey, to Supervisor Kate Sears. Within minutes, I received this response from her assistant, Maureen Parton.
Our office cannot handle this inquiry. Our District Three office does not handle any campaign inquiries here, as I am sure you understand. Anything campaign related, such as this inquiry, must go through the campaign and not here on County business hours.
Since Kate Sears is my elected representative, this response seemed nonsensically inappropriate in addition to completely avoiding my question. So, I wrote again, to Kate Sears, reminding her that my question was put to her, directly, and asking her to provide me with a different email address to direct it to, even though that should not matter.
I got no response.
A Google search turned up a SearsForSupervisor website with another email address, email@example.com, so I resent my questions to that address and waited to hear back.
Meanwhile, the Marin Post continued to receive reports about the FM3 survey.
Here is how one individual described the experience to us:
The pollster would set up his questions by saying something like: "Here are some of the negative things that opponents of Susan Kirsch are saying about her," and then the pollster would read a long list of things, but in the middle of the list one of the most damaging for Susan was that "she is supported by the Koch brothers." Then, a short time later, the pollster asked, "Would you be more or less likely to vote for someone who is supported by the Koch brothers?" And then, a little later, "Now that you know this information, would you be more likely to vote for Susan Kirsch or Kate Sears?"
The pollster's set ups were very long descriptions of Susan's and Kate's "qualifications," "accomplishments," and "demerits," which were meant to "educate" and sway opinion rather than to solicit unbiased answers. The pollster said, "It's not uncommon for interviewees to change their minds during the interview about who to vote for when they learn more information about a candidate."
The set ups were more favorable about Sears than about Kirsch. Clearly, the purpose of the poll was to change people’s minds and to influence the voters. The pollster asked at least three times, "Now that you know this additional information, would you be more likely to vote for Susan Kirsch or for Kate Sears?"
For those voters who don't follow Marin County politics closely, the primary take away from this poll would have been that a vote for Susan Kirsch was a vote for the Koch Brothers, so if you despise the Koch brothers, then don't vote for Susan. The supposed Koch Brothers connection is what stands out in my mind.
This impression about the survey was echoed, independently, by every one of the readers who contacted us. Another reader described to us, how when he spoke favorably about the work of organizations such as Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans, the interviewer suddenly talked about how Kate Sears was a champion of "transparency" on pension negotiations. When he said he was concerned about high density housing and over development, the surveyor suddenly mentioned how Kate Sears was working for citizens on this issue, even though as a resident of an impacted area, he had experienced firsthand how inaccessible Kate Sears has been on that issue. He told us that in his opinion, the bias of the survey could not be more blatant.
Still, the question remained, who hired FM3 to do this and what was their motive? On the surface, the answer to that is obvious. It is a desperate attempt to smear the reputation and character of Kate Sears' opponent, Susan Kirsch. That, of course, is ugly enough on its own, but we then got a call from another resident, who provided additional insight.
This particular Marin Post reader, who had participated in the telephone survey, was a professional survey writer, herself, and had taken the survey to the very end in order to find out what they were trying to accomplish. Her comments were enlightening.
She described herself to the surveyor as an “undecided voter” (which was actually the truth). She said the survey she took contained no “neutral questions” (as I noted above, it apparently changes for each person on the fly, in order to steer them toward a predetermined conclusion). She kept being asked to either “strongly agree” or “strongly disagree” with somewhat preposterous opposites. She said the surveyor was quite aggressive and whole experience made her “very uncomfortable,” which in her professional opinion was very odd. There was no way, she told us, that she could respond with an “appropriate” answer to anything, as a normal, thoughtful person might. She was constantly forced to choose between extreme positions based on biased, “apples and oranges comparisons,” between Supervisor Sears and challenger, Susan Kirsch.
She said the questions might start our sounding reasonable, but then they would suddenly throw in “something outrageous about Susan Kirsch” that made responding intelligently, impossible.
Like all the others who contacted the Marin Post, in her opinion, the entire poll was biased against Susan Kirsch and clearly tried to create a strong link between Susan Kirsch and the Koch Brothers and extremist ideologies. Considering that Ms. Kirsch is a long time progressive liberal and an elected member of the Marin Democratic Central Committee, the accusations seem preposterous. But there’s no doubt they might work on the many residents in Marin who don’t really pay attention to local politics, but do vote.
So, I asked this participant what in her professional opinion, was the purpose of the survey? Why would an incumbent elected official come out with guns blazing like this and stoop to such low tactics, especially since it’s so early in the campaign?
Her response surprised me.
She said that she didn’t think it really was a survey at all, but was actually just testing responses to “buzzwords,” to find out which ones got the strongest negative reactions about Susan Kirsch. Then this tested list of hot button words and phrases would probably be used in mailers and other materials down the line, closer to Election Day. These damaging words and phrases might also be distributed to key supporters as suggestions about how to word letters to editors and other correspondence supporting Kate Sears.
Last night I attended the Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans Candidate’s Debate that was moderated by Dick Spotswood. It was a great event and the first debate to include all the candidates running for each of the three Districts, with open seats for Marin County Supervisor. The room at the Four Points Sheraton in Terra Linda was packed and the much promoted crackers and cheese trays, and the rest of the refreshments, lived up to expectations.
At the end, each candidate was given three minutes to tell us all why we should vote for them. Most talked about their past accomplishments, their passionate feelings about Marin, and their promises to work to make it better. Kate Sears was one of the last to speak.
She got up and focused her comments on one major theme. She told us that the one thing she brought to the job, that she was most proud of and good at, was her ability to reach out to everyone, to respect everyone’s opinion and to work collaboratively with everyone to find better solutions.
She said she knew how to bring us all together.
I hope those standing next to me will forgive me for choking on my cheese balls.
At the time of the publication of this article, we still had not gotten any response from Kate Sears or her campaign staff.
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Written by Bob Silvestri, editor of the Marin Post