Tobacco Dole

What do Bob Dole’s telemarketer, his chief California strategist, and one of his national co-chairs have in common? Big Tobacco.

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Texas Attorney General Dan Morales broadcast a clear message last fall: If tobacco companies were making millions in Texas, then they could help contribute to the billions in Medicaid costs spent in Texas for smoking-related illnesses. Several other attorneys general already had filed lawsuits against the tobacco industry to recover such health care costs. But before Morales could follow their lead, half a dozen tobacco industry lobbyists visited him and delivered a private poll from the political consulting firm Public Opinion Strategies.

The poll, commissioned in January by the Covington & Burling law firm on behalf of the four largest tobacco firms and the industry’s advocacy group, The Tobacco Institute, claimed the people of Texas wouldn’t support Morales if he filed the suit. The proof? Two-thirds of the more than 800 Texans polled had said they wouldn’t favor the proposed lawsuit.

But then Morales took a closer look at the poll. He discovered it was actually a “push-poll,” designed not to gauge public opinion but sway it. The poll’s telemarketing script began with basic, unobtrusive political questions–then quickly zeroed in on Morales. “Elected officials are held to high standards in public life,” the script read. “Here are some reasons people are giving to vote against Dan Morales.”

Among the reasons: Morales was “pro-affirmative action”; he “supports gun control”; and his 1994 campaign contributed money to Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. (Morales’ staffers had purchased two tickets to a dinner thrown by a local chapter of the Nation of Islam.) Those polled were also told that Morales’ proposed lawsuit could cost thousands of jobs, prevent the attorney general from fighting crime, and reward only a few wealthy personal injury lawyers. Finally–the spin complete–those polled were asked what they thought of the suit. It’s hardly surprising that they overwhelmingly opposed it.

Despite its bias, the poll served its purpose: to deliver a not-so-veiled threat that, on a moment’s notice, the tobacco companies could make many more such calls throughout Texas and, through strategies such as push-polling, mobilize an untold number of voters against the suit–and against Morales.

Still, Morales proceeded with the suit.

And the man who runs the polling firm, William McInturff, went back to his day job–as chief pollster for Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole.

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You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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