Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Robo-calls show the depths this campaign has sunk to

A perky-sounding voice was on the other end of the line. This is Susan from Florida Research, she chirped. Except Susan wasn't there. No live person, just an automated call asking for responses to a public opinion survey.

Nothing unusual about a poll, but the time and place raised a few questions. The call came to a desk in the Times' Hernando County newsroom. The telephone has a 352 area code and an 848 exchange.

The robo-poll didn't ask if the person answering was a registered voter or a member of a political party or even for a place of residence. So much for vetting. Susan just happened to call a business number in Hernando County to ask an anonymous person a few questions about the Pasco school superintendent race.

It's been that kind of campaign season, featuring inaccurate and misleading mail pieces to misguided pollsters to candidates admitting ignorance or demonstrating naivete on the most basic questions regarding Penny for Pasco or the county government budget or even a willingness to serve on a legislative committee.

Early voting began Saturday and the primary election concludes at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 14. Lots of people, candidates and voters alike, are anxious for the campaign's conclusion. Susan probably is too.

She isn't the only robocaller, by the way. Ex-Sheriff Bob White — the guy who resigned after blowing his political capital on an ill-advised attempt to bully county commissioners into more government spending — wants people to vote for County Commission candidate Bill Gunter. Retiring Commissioner Ann Hildebrand wants you to support Kurt Browning for school superintendent. The guy pushing Amendment 4 calls our house so often we just hang up when we hear his voice.

Someone even called the house to poll us on the races for circuit court judge. Judicial candidates, really? In our domicile, "undecided" won in every race.

For sheer entertainment value, though, nobody topped Susan or her research firm's erroneous telephone programmer. I answered that July 11 call to the Hernando newsroom and was asked if I intended to vote for Kenneth Benson, Kurt Browning or Heather Fiorentino for Pasco school superintendent. I answered "undecided."

Note to Susan: Since I am not a Republican, I will not be voting in that election.

Two more questions came. Did I know Kurt Browning would work for the first year in office for $1, saving taxpayers at least $134,000? Yes. Did I know the incumbent superintendent faced a School Board inquiry into whether school employees were coerced into supporting her campaign? Yes.

Susan thanked me and then came the acknowledgement that the telephone survey was paid for by a legislator-controlled politicking committee in Tallahassee. In other words, some honcho Republicans lending a hand to Browning were testing to find out if voters had been influenced by Fiorentino's double-dipper campaign theme or by the public allegations of political browbeating of district employees by her staff.

Aren't there more important issues?

So, imagine the surprise that same evening when the telephone rang in our Land O'Lakes home and a familiar voice started talking.


Once wasn't enough. So, I took her poll for a second time that day and provided the same answers. Undecided. Yes. Yes.

There has been a lot of name-calling this campaign season, and not all of it has been aimed at political opponents. Commission candidate Ron Oakley sent a mail piece that referred to the Times as "our local liberal newspaper.'' A School Board candidate characterized a published recommendation of his opponent as dishonest. Another thanked the Times for not recommending her candidacy because it might have meant self-inflicted damage to her integrity and ideals. The public can decide if it this is all just sour grapes.

The calls from Susan, however, confirmed our identity as yet another anomaly in the 2012 campaigns. In this case, the household can be construed as contributing to a factor associated commonly with public opinion polling results:

The margin of error.

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