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CS Fullerton's Irvine Poll Called Smear

September 16, 2004|Jean O. Pasco and Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writers

Irvine City Councilman Mike Ward asked Cal State Fullerton President Milton A. Gordon on Wednesday to investigate a telephone survey of Irvine voters conducted by the university's Social Science Research Center -- a poll that Ward, a candidate for mayor, labeled a political smear against him.

The calls were made this month. Some people who said pollsters contacted them complained to the City Council that the survey questions included inaccurate statements critical of Ward and favorable to his opponent, City Councilwoman Beth Krom, who is challenging Ward in the race for mayor. Those polled said they were told that Cal State Fullerton was conducting the survey on behalf of the city of Irvine.

City officials said they authorized no such survey.

Greg Robinson, director of the university's Social Science Research Center, confirmed that he conducted the survey of 850 Irvine voters but refused to say who paid for it or detail the questions.

He said the work was a research study paid for by a sponsor through the CSUF Foundation. Because the foundation is not a state agency -- as is the university -- it is not required to make its business public.

Robinson said the center "does work for a variety of clients, some with particular partisan and/or policy agendas," but declined to comment on the complaints that survey-takers in this case provided misleading information that could sway Irvine voters.

Three Irvine residents -- including former City Councilman Greg Smith, who is running again for a seat -- complained to the City Council about the calls. Ward and City Councilman Chris Mears said they contacted Gordon to ask why the university was lending its credibility to such a poll.

"It was so obviously a propaganda thing," said Elizabeth Thomas, one of the residents who registered a complaint. "It was not a legitimate poll."

According to Thomas and two other residents who said they were contacted in the survey, callers were asked if they would change their support for Ward or Krom if they knew certain things about Ward, including that he supported building a light-rail line through Woodbridge Village, that he supported moving the Hollywood Park racetrack and casino to Irvine's proposed Great Park, and that he supported tripling the size of the James A. Musick Branch Jail. All three statements are false, Ward said.

The poll also asked if voters would change their opinion of Ward if they knew he supported "high-density building" in Irvine. Ward, Mears and City Councilwoman Christina L. Shea last month backed a 2,000-unit affordable housing project near the Great Park that was opposed by Krom and council ally Mayor Larry Agran.

Ward characterized the questions as a "push poll," a label used in politics for a telemarketing campaign designed to feed misleading information to voters under the guise of asking their opinion.

"I believe CSUF should send a letter or place a call to all those previously contacted in order to correct the record," Ward wrote in his letter e-mailed Wednesday to the campus president.

Although he declined to say if Cal State survey-takers provided misleading information, Robinson said his survey wasn't a push poll because it involved a small number of voters; push polls aim to reach a large number of people, usually close to an election.

Shea said the poll so disturbed her that she recorded a message to Irvine voters that accused the survey of spreading falsehoods about Ward, whom she supports for mayor. Shea's message, paid for by Ward's campaign, was phoned to about 20,000 households, Ward said.

Krom and Agran said they knew nothing about the poll. The two are running on a slate of candidates, of which those surveyed also were asked their opinion.

Agran, running for a council seat, said that from what he had heard, the poll included nothing that was "out of the ordinary."

He suggested it might be "one of the routine polls conducted by the Irvine Co." But Irvine Co. officials said they weren't responsible for the survey and hadn't polled in the city in years.

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