Set back by a trend of survey anxiety among political candidates, Project Vote Smart, a nonprofit based in Phillipsburg that provides information to voters, may be losing its relevance in national politics.
Vote Smart’s website offers data on over 40,000 candidates, ranging from biographies to campaign finance reports and voting records. But its key informational tool is its proprietary “political courage test,” a questionnaire that probes candidates’ stances on a range of issues. Lately though, no one wants to take it.
According to a November press release, only three 2008 presidential candidates agreed to take the test: Chris Dodd, John Edwards, and Mike Gravel. With such paltry participation, Vote Smart has little to validate its flagship research method. Even one of the organization’s founding board members, Sen. John McCain, declined to complete the survey.
Vote Smart’s president, Richard Kimball, says the trend “demonstrates the obvious relationship between exploding campaign financing, candidates’ ability to control their messages and the public’s loss of access to information.”
Candidates and their consultants also show growing fear of opposition researchers digging through informational candidate surveys for ammunition, says Vote Smart’s Media Director, Mike Wessler. The organization’s website includes a page dedicated to documenting some 30 cases in which consultants or political parties advised their candidates to withhold position statements from the public.
Wessler said Vote Smart tries to prevent this tactic from hurting candidates, and if information from the database shows up in a hit piece, Vote Smart will collaborate with candidates on a press release condeming the attack. “This is for voters to receive information,” Wessler says. “It’s not for candidates to sling mud.”
Skittish, uncooperative candidates won’t hinder Vote Smart’s work, Wessler says. Despite declining participation in the political courage survey, he says the organization’s other research tools–voting records, biographies, issue briefs, etc.—ensure its continuing popularity with voters. With the primaries in full swing, he says calls to Vote Smart’s information hotline are up by a third.