Politics

‘Message testing’ aims to detect weak spots in Zuckerman’s campaign

David Zuckerman
David Zuckerman signs a handmade political poster of himself at Williston Central School in 2016, when he was running for lieutenant governor. File photo by Jasper Craven/VTDigger

Editor’s note: This article is by Shanti Boyle, a reporter with the Community News Service, a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.

David Zuckerman, the Democratic nominee for governor, is being targeted in a new “poll” asking people a series of negative questions about the candidate — a tactic experts largely consider disreputable. 

For instance, people are asked to compare Zuckerman’s “radical” government programs versus Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s middle-of-the-road approach. After each question, people are asked if the negative point raised about Zuckerman makes them more or less likely to vote for him. 

It’s actually a way to test a particular political message, said Rich Clark, professor of political science and former director of polling at the Castleton Polling Institute.

“They want to know what message is going to damage a candidate the most,” Clark said. Those negative responses can then fuel negative campaign ads on television or in mailings to voters.

Message testing is sometimes mistaken for “push polls” — large-scale, thinly veiled attempts to smear candidates. 

“Typically, a push poll is an effort to shape opinion that doesn’t include any data collection at all. Message testing is actually collecting data,” Clark said. 

Clark said push polls are notable for how few questions are asked, while message testing is marked by more questions and an attempt to acquire demographic information from the person being called. 

“It would cost a lot to ask many questions and get those out to lots of people,” he said.

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Zuckerman’s campaign is aware of the negative polls, said Colleen Jackson, the deputy campaign manager.

“We have been receiving some calls from supporters telling us about potential push polling, but none of us on staff have received the poll, so we don’t know if it is push polling,” Jackson said.

Jason Maulucci, Scott’s campaign manager, said the governor’s campaign was not involved, and has no idea who’s doing the message testing.

“Our campaign hasn’t done any of that, so I don’t know who it could be,” Maulucci said, and said sometimes campaigns use message testing to look for weak spots in their candidate. “Sometimes the other side will try to expose their own vulnerabilities and ask questions like that,” he said.

Some outside money is flowing into Vermont campaigns this year.

In July, A Stronger Vermont, a political action committee funded by the Republican Governors Association, gave $54,000 to National Research Inc., which manages polling for a litany of Republican candidates, including President Donald Trump’s campaign. A Stronger Vermont also supported Scott’s campaign in 2018.

Our Vermont, a political action committee funded by the Democratic Governors Association, has not yet entered the fray in the governor’s race, according to campaign filings.

Many Vermont organizations also have PACs, including the National Education Association, the Vermont State Employees Association, Planned Parenthood, and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

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Shanti Boyle

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