published Monday, January 27th, 2014

Personal polls can move public opinion

On the eve of election season, incumbent constituent surveys are starting to fill mailboxes across Tennessee.

In fact, about 45,000 residents in Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District were sent an "end of year report and survey" by U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., this month.

The survey and report give residents a rundown of what the Chattanooga Republican says he's been focusing on and says it seeks to gauge what constituents want him to do. Fleischmann is seeking renomination for his 3rd District seat. He is being challenged in the GOP primary by Weston Wamp. Whoever wins the primary in August could face Angelia Stinnett, the only Democrat in the race to date.

Fleischmann is an avid opponent of the Affordable Care Act and has much support from state tea party groups for his efforts to cut federal regulations. He also says Congress members shouldn't be paid if they can't agree on a budget.

The survey features 11 simple, straightforward questions such as "Do you believe the government should play a larger or smaller role in people's lives?" Residents can mark either "larger" or "smaller." And questions such as "Do you believe Obamacare has had a positive or negative influence on Tennessee families?" The possible answers are positive, negative or unsure.

But a University of Tennessee political science professor says the survey included a few leading questions.

"It's not the most egregious I've seen. But is it truly supposed to be a scientific measure of what his constituency thinks? ... I'm not sure this will give [Fleischmann] that," said Michelle Deardorff, head of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's political science department.

Simplicity of language can be a red flag for political polls, Deardorff said.

"Oftentimes, these polls are used to move public opinion," she said. "We do know that the way questions are framed help to produce certain answers."

That means the results might not actually represent the true sentiments of most Tennesseans in the 3rd District.

Such mailers and surveys have to clear the Franking Commission, a federal bipartisan committee that approves or vetoes political speech paid for by tax money. The group's aim is to ensure politicians don't use tax dollars to campaign.

But despite the clearance, Deardorff said charged language can sometimes sneak through. It did in Fleischmann's survey, she said: The survey refers to abortion as "the right to life" and refers to the Affordable Care Act as "Obamacare." Deardorff says that language is loaded -- but she's seen much worse.

Fleischmann spokesman Tyler Threadgill said the mailer did pass the Franking Commission, and that surveying constituents is an important part of Fleischmann's job. The congressman will review and consider all the surveys that are returned, Threadgill said. He said the office routinely sends out surveys. The latest one cost $29,889 out of the office's operating budget.

Threadgill said the surveys were completely separate from any campaign material Fleischmann may send out.

Another tea party favorite, 4th District U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, sent out mailers at the end of 2013.

DesJarlais spokesman Robert Jameson said in an email this month that polling the public is critical.

"One of Congressman DesJarlais' top priorities in Congress is listening to the folks he serves in Tennessee's 4th Congressional District. The responses we receive from these surveys play a critical role in shaping the congressman's legislative agenda and voting record," Jameson said.

DesJarlais is being challenged by state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, for the GOP nomination. Whoever wins that primary could face Democrat Lenda Sherrell, a certified public accountant from Monteagle, Tenn., in November.

But Deardorff said the answers can also supply critical information representatives can use later in campaign material.

"Frankly, they can really use it however they want to. The question is, will there be people there to hold them accountable?" she said.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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