A presumptive Republican candidate for county executive in 2018 was targeted this week in a recorded telephone poll by County Councilman Kirby Delauter.
The poll asked recipients whether they would support Delauter or Delegate Kathy Afzali, R-District 4, in a Republican primary for county executive.
For those who said they would vote for Afzali, the poll went on to ask three loaded questions about her record, before asking again which candidate they would support.
Delauter — who announced his candidacy in May — said the goal of two recent polls was to test voters’ opinions on various issues. Afzali said the calls were a “Hillary Clinton-style push poll” spreading misleading information.
“I will be making my future political plans known in the fall, but in the meantime, I ask for your thoughts and please ignore these corrupt false attacks,” Afzali wrote in a statement emailed to supporters.
But she also pointed to a third-party polling memo that was sent to her in late June showing that she polls better than Delauter against Democratic County Executive Jan Gardner (D).
Delauter said that memo was part of the motivation behind his own polling.
“I didn’t necessarily believe the data, so I ran my own poll,” Delauter said. “It’s quite different.”
Delauter’s campaign provided a three-page write-up of the poll, which reached 592 Republicans earlier this week.
His campaign said the poll shows voters shift from supporting Afzali initially, after the three policy questions:
- If you knew that Kathy Afzali voted with Democrats to protect groups that have known ties to radical Islamic terrorism, would that change your vote?
- If you knew that Kathy Afzali voted with Democrats to pass Martin O’Malley’s budget that increased spending by over $1.5 billion, would that change your vote?
- If you knew that Kathy Afzali has publicly attacked Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, who is leading the fight against illegal immigration and sanctuary policies in Frederick County, would that change your vote?
Cameron Harris, who worked as a legislative aide in Annapolis last year before being fired for his involvement in a fake news website, gave additional details about the poll as a spokesman for Delauter’s campaign.
At the start of the call, 39.48 percent of those polled favored Afzali, compared with 27.45 percent supporting Delauter and 33.07 percent undecided. At the end of the poll, the numbers shifted to 42.86 percent in support of Delauter and 29.70 percent supporting Afzali, with 27.44 percent still undecided.
An earlier poll that focused more simply on favorability showed that Delauter doesn’t have the same level of name recognition as Afzali or Gardner, but his policy positions resonate with his supporters, Harris said. “Among voters who are aware of him, he has high favorables,” Harris said.
Reached by phone, Afzali said she would not comment beyond the written statement she sent to supporters, which touted her conservative Republican record but did not address the underlying claims in the poll’s questions.
“It’s just so ridiculous, I can’t even comment,” Afzali said about the questions.
The first question in Delauter’s poll concerns the 2016 “Homegrown Terrorism Act” from Delegate David E. Vogt III that would have revoked the tax-exempt status of nonprofit organizations “that are directly linked to the spread and support of a radicalized notion of Islam.” The bill failed in committee, where Afzali joined 11 Democrats in voting against the measure.
The second question is related to the General Assembly’s vote on the $36.9 billion fiscal 2014 budget, which was supported by Afzali and half a dozen other Republicans. The third invokes a 2015 spat between Afzali and Jenkins.
Afzali did not go into detail on Wednesday about a June poll that shows her in a competitive race with Gardner, with Delauter trailing by 8 points in a similar matchup, according to a two-page memo from Targeted Creative Communications Inc. That poll reached 850 registered voters from both parties between June 14 and 18.
Afzali would not say who paid for the poll, just that the memo was shared with her by a third party.
Delauter found himself fielding questions Wednesday from some voters who said the poll rubbed them the wrong way.
Tex Lanier said he receives about one polling call per week at his Urbana home, but Wednesday was the first time he’s felt compelled to respond to a candidate afterward.
“It annoyed me. It made me angry. I felt tricked into taking a poll that was not a poll,” Lanier said in a phone interview Wednesday. “My objection is trying to pass a campaign as a poll.”
He shared his concerns with Delauter and Afzali in an email conversation, which was copied to a Frederick News-Post reporter.
“The poll simply brought [out] Ms. Afzali’s record on issues I feel are relevant today. It was not meant to mislead, just give us a clear indication of where voters stand on issues,” Delauter wrote to Lanier. “It does me no good to skew a poll, I simply wanted to find out where the voters [were] on these issues.”
When they’re sent out right before election days, such messages are commonly referred to as “push polls” because they push a narrative or message to voters under the guise of questions, said Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College.
In this case, Kromer said the goal appears to be message testing, another common polling strategy candidates use to see what messages boost them or hurt an opponent.
There can be a danger to such polls.
“If it’s too blatantly negative, you can’t tell the message from the noise,” she said.
Another issue is that they exist in a vacuum.
“The real question about these polls is this: with the pushback ... in a regular campaign environment, will they stick?” Kromer said.
The polls also come very early in the 2018 election cycle. The 2018 primary election is on June 26, 2018, and the general election is on Nov. 6, 2018.
Only one candidate has filed official paperwork with the Maryland State Board of Elections: Republican Regina Williams.