Test Study

Why are politicians like John McCain suddenly so afraid of Project Vote Smart?

Arizona Sen. John McCain was kicked off Project Vote Smart's board after he refused to return the Political Courage Test.
Until recently, Arizona Sen. John McCain was a big supporter of Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan, nonprofit outfit that cuts through the phony campaign jibber-jabber and delivers the facts about candidates for public office.

The goals of Project Vote Smart seemed to fit right in with McCain's reputation for straight talk: giving voters an unbiased resource to find out what politicians really stand for, based on their voting records, interest-group ratings and an in-depth survey of the candidates themselves known as the Political Courage Test.

McCain dutifully filled out the Political Courage Test during his last Senate campaign in 2004. Just last year, he was lending his name to letters urging other candidates who refused to take the survey to fill it out. He even replaced his predecessor in the U.S. Senate, Barry Goldwater, on the Project Vote Smart board of directors when Goldwater died.

But McCain's tenure on the Project Vote Smart board came to an abrupt end last week after he refused to fill out the Political Courage Test for his presidential campaign.

McCain's campaign has declined to comment on why he hasn't filled out the Political Courage Test. But on Wednesday, April 9, McCain missed his last deadline to turn in his homework and was booted from the board.

"I was surprised, quite frankly," says Richard Kimball, the founder and president of Project Vote Smart. "John has always been really supportive of the project. He always took the test; he always responded."

McCain isn't the first presidential candidate to be knocked off the Project Vote Smart board; Democrat Bill Bradley was also removed for refusing to take the survey in 2000 while seeking the White House.

McCain has plenty of company among politicians who refuse to take the survey. Both of the remaining Democratic presidential contenders, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have also refused to fill it out.

In fact, the percentage of politicians willing to complete the survey has been falling in almost every election cycle. In 1996, 72 percent of congressional candidates completed the survey; in 2006, only 48 percent did. Almost three out of four incumbents ignored the request in 2006.

Why the reluctance to take the Political Courage Test? Because the Project Vote Smart survey has become one-stop shopping for campaigns to do opposition research. As a result, political strategists discourage candidates from completing the survey, warning that it could come back to haunt them.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who refused to fill out the survey for her 2006 campaign, says she's concerned that her responses would be used against her.

"I applaud what they do, because they do provide a pretty good scorecard," Giffords says. "But most often, those scorecards get used against you. ... I want to make sure I'm not giving my opponent ammunition to be used against me."

Giffords has only filled out Project Vote Smart's state-level survey once, in her first campaign for the Arizona House of Representatives in 2000.

That's a slightly better record than her presumptive GOP opponent this year, state Sen. Tim Bee, who has never filled out the survey in his legislative races. Bee campaign spokesman Tom Dunn said he didn't know if Bee would fill it out this year.

If politicians are too afraid to fill out the survey, they end up denying voters the information they need to make good decisions at the ballot box, argues Kimball.

"From my standpoint, it's an absolute outrage," Kimball says. "They are intentionally organizing to strip citizens of the one absolutely crucial component in the struggle of any free people to govern themselves: their right to abundant, accurate, relevant information."

The Political Courage Test--formally known as the National Political Awareness Test, until so many politicians quit responding to it that Kimball renamed it because "it takes courage to fill it out"--isn't like most surveys sent out by various interest groups.

Rather than focusing on a narrow interest such as abortion or the environment, the Political Courage Test digs deep into just about every major issue facing lawmakers. Developed by a group of political scientists, the test breaks down the various policy options being discussed and asks politicians to reveal which ones they support. When candidates do fill out the survey, it provides perhaps the most in-depth look at their political values available.

However, because it is so detailed, it has become a useful tool for candidates looking to craft hit pieces against their opponents.

Two years ago, in the rough-and-tumble GOP primary to replace Congressman Jim Kolbe in Congressional District 8, former state Rep. Steve Huffman (who refused to fill out the survey himself) used a question from the survey as the basis of an attack mailer against Mike Hellon, a former GOP state chair and national committeeman.

Project Vote Smart discourages the use of the organization's name, but Kimball says he has little recourse to prevent it from happening.

Hank Kenski, a UA communications professor who helped design some of Project Vote Smart and served on its board, has high praise for both Kimball and the organization.

"Richard has done a tremendous job," Kenski says. "He's always been bipartisan; he's always gotten people from both sides on his board."

But Kenski says the survey may have "outlived its usefulness."

"I can show you anything on that survey, and it could be used against people," Kenski says. "The problem is, people have played games with it."

Kenski also serves as Southern Arizona chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, who is among the politicians who haven't filled out the Political Courage Test. Kenski says Kyl prefers to post his positions on his own Web site.

"We have, on the 21 major issues, a page where Jon Kyl (discusses his) stands on each of these issues," Kenski says.

Kimball says he's not ready to give up on sending out the survey, even though it takes a lot of work.

"It's one of the minor parts of our database," Kimball says. "It's not really essential to what we're now able to do. But it's an interesting study, and giving up on it would break the standard, so we want to keep it going."

Beyond the recurring problem of getting politicians to fill out the Political Courage Test, Project Vote Smart has come a long way since it launched in Tucson back in the late 1980s "in an office with two IBM Selectric typewriters and a leaky roof," as Kimball remembers it.

A former Arizona lawmaker and corporation commissioner, Kimball came up with the idea after he ran as the Democratic nominee against John McCain in 1986 for the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Republican Barry Goldwater.

Kimball remembers that during his last televised debate with McCain, he decided to forgo a planned attack on McCain and instead told the audience: "Understand what we do to you: We spend all of our time raising money, often from strangers we do not even know. Then we spend it in three specific ways: First, we measure you, what it is you want to purchase in the political marketplace--just like Campbell's soup or Kellogg's cereal. Next, we hire some consultants who know how to tailor our image to fit what will sell. Lastly, we bombard you with the meaningless, issueless, emotional nonsense that is always the result. And whichever one of us does that best will win."

Kimball notes in an article on the Project Vote Smart Web site: "It wasn't a very effective argument for getting votes, nor did it make my campaign staff very happy."

But it did lead to the creation of Project Vote Smart. In the wake of his Senate campaign, Kimball found himself talking with Goldwater about the campaign process. He remembers Goldwater saying that it had become "dishonorable."

Kimball hatched the idea of developing a national database that voters could turn to for nonpartisan, factual information. He chased down grants from organizations such as the Carnegie, Ford, Knight and Revson foundations.

Through the 1990s, Project Vote Smart grew into a phone-bank operation staffed by interns who spoke to voters who called a toll-free number to inquire about elected officials and their challengers.

But with the advent of the Internet, Project Vote Smart really took off. In recent months, the Web site has been getting up to 7 million page views a day, says Kimble.

Kimball recalls he was reluctant to put the information on the Web when the Project Vote Smart staff was urging him to make the transition. But he was sold on it when he saw the results: In the first three weeks after the site went live in 1996, the organization got more inquiries than it had received in the previous four years.

"It was a humiliating experience for me, because I had fought it so hard," he laughs.

The Web site is a rich resource of background on candidates. Voters can find biographies, rankings from special-interest groups from across the political spectrum, campaign speeches, voting records, campaign-finance reports and more. If they want additional information, voters can still call a toll-free number and ask an operator to do research. The database now includes information about all 50 state legislatures as well as federal offices.

Last year, Kimball was able to bring Project Vote Smart back to Tucson when the University of Arizona agreed to provide some support, including some office space and interns.

The organization--which runs on a budget of less than $1.5 million a year--now has about 45 staffers and hundreds of interns and volunteers who work in Tucson and the Great Divide Ranch, a 150-acre spread in Montana that serves as co-headquarters.

In February, a new Project Vote Smart bus, outfitted with computers and interns, set out from Tucson to tour the country as part of the effort to let voters know that they can tap into the organization's vast database.

Kimball says even if politicians refuse to take the Political Courage Test, that database assures that Project Vote Smart will remain relevant.

"We've become so good at this stuff that we don't need (politicians') cooperation to get the goods on them," Kimball says. "We've got it all."

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