After the fifth or sixth person asked me if I knew who was behind the push poll in District D (Southwest Raleigh) last week, I started calling it “the push poll” myself. But since push poll is such a dirty term in politics, let’s not jump ahead of ourselves. There was some automated calling done in the district. A recorded voice asked “questions” about the District D incumbent, City Councilor Thomas Crowder — questions that were not really questions at all. They were along the lines of: Would you vote for Crowder if you knew that he (insert criticism or innuendo)? Well, would you still vote for him if you knew that he (insert additional criticism or innuendo)?

You know, like push polls do.

I called Crowder’s opponent, Ted Van Dyk, to ask him if he knew who did the poll. “There are interested people” who did it, he said. “There was a poll done … I did not have direct grimy hands on the questions … I am party to the information [collected].”

In short, if he knows who took it — and presumably he does, because he acknowledged getting the results — Van Dyk wasn’t saying. I finally asked him if he was the client. Was it his poll? “I’m not going to say it is my poll, and I’m not going to say it isn’t,” he said.

On one point, though, Van Dyk was definite. “It was not a push poll,” he insisted.

So what is a push poll?

Quite simply, it’s a smear campaign disguised as a poll. Political candidates often “test” negative messages for possible use against their opponents. One might legitimately ask, for example, whether you’d be more or less inclined to vote for Bev Perdue if you knew that she supported a 1-cent sales tax increase? If you knew that she is pro-gay rights. That kind of thing. Test ’em out.

But at some point, the test is over and the calls aren’t polling anything, they’re just pushing out a negative message with far more calls than any legitimate survey would require.

The anti-Crowder poll started by asking whether the recipient of the call backed Mayor Meeker. What about Crowder? What about Crowder if you knew that he frequently votes against the mayor? (A statistic was offered, but with no context for understanding what it meant, and I won’t repeat it.) What about Crowder if you knew he had an unlisted phone number? (Not mentioned: He has several listed phone numbers.) The questions kind of tailed off from there.

Then there’s the fact that this is not the first time such messages have been “tested.”

I called Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling in Raleigh and a neighbor of mine (and of Ted’s) in Cameron Park. PPP specializes in automated polls, sometimes for clients, sometimes for publicity value. (When it’s the latter, they’re eager to tell the press everything.)

A few weeks ago, when a very similar “poll” was conducted about Crowder, I talked with Debnam and he acknowledged that it was his poll — just a routine poll like he does in many local races, he said.

But this time around, he didn’t return my call. So I don’t whether this was also a PPP poll or not.

PPP’s Tom Jensen, Debnam’s aide, did respond to an email, but only to say that he wouldn’t say if the poll was theirs and, if so, how many voters were called.

“PPP does polls that it releases to the public, and others that, for a multitude of reasons, it doesn’t,” Jensen said. “The polls we release publicly, we talk about publicly, and those we don’t, we don’t.”

Now it’s common knowledge that Debnam, who owns a number of businesses in addition to the polling firm, and who contributes a lot of money to Democratic candidates, used to support Crowder but now despises him. The reason: Crowder was the architect on a project that Debnam started and abandoned. Debnam blames Crowder. An arbitrator sided with Crowder and said Debnam owes Crowder money. They’re in court now, with Debnam suing to have the arbitrator’s decision set aside. (The N&O did an early story about it.)

A big problem in determining who did the poll is that, according to everyone who took the calls, the polling firm did not identify itself. Greg Flynn, a regular contributor to the pro-Democrats BlueNC blog, thinks the law requires such disclosure. He points to this statutory language, enacted in North Carolina six years ago to protect folks against unwanted telephone sales calls:

§ 75‑104. Restrictions on use of automatic dialing and recorded message players.

(a) Except as provided in this section, no person may use an automatic dialing and recorded message player to make an unsolicited telephone call.

(b) Notwithstanding subsection (a) of this section, a person may use an automatic dialing and recorded message player to make an unsolicited telephone call only under one or more of the following circumstances:

(1) All of the following are satisfied:

a. The person making the call is any of the following:

1. A tax‑exempt charitable or civic organization.

2. A political party or political candidate.

3. A governmental official.

4. An opinion polling organization, radio station, television station, cable television company, or broadcast rating service conducting a public opinion poll.

b. No part of the call is used to make a telephone solicitation.

c. The person making the call clearly identifies the person’s name and contact information and the nature of the unsolicited telephone call.

(2) Prior to the playing of the recorded message, a live operator complies with G.S. 75‑102(c), states the nature and length in minutes of the recorded message, and asks for and receives prior approval to play the recorded message from the person receiving the call.

(3) The unsolicited telephone call is in connection with an existing debt or contract for which payment or performance has not been completed at the time of the unsolicited telephone call.

(4) The unsolicited telephone call is placed by a person with whom the telephone subscriber has made an appointment, provided that the call is conveying information only about the appointment, or by a utility, telephone company, cable television company, satellite television company, or similar entity for the sole purpose of conveying information or news about network outages, repairs or service interruptions, and confirmation calls related to restoration of service.

(5) The person plays the recorded message in order to comply with section 16 C.F.R. Part 310.4(b)(4) of the Telemarketing Sales Rule.

(6) The unsolicited telephone call is placed by, or on behalf of, a health insurer as defined in G.S. 58‑51‑115(a)(2) from whom the telephone subscriber or other covered family member of the health insurer receives health care coverage or the administration of such coverage, provided that the call is conveying information related to the telephone subscriber or family member’s health care, preventive services, medication or other covered benefits. (2003‑411, s. 3; 2008‑124, s. 10.3.)

Flynn, too, tried to reach Debnam and couldn’t. But Debnam did respond to a Flynn post on Facebook, saying polling firms aren’t covered by the language Flynn was citing. Flynn told me he plans to pursue that issue with the state Attorney General’s office.

Crowder didn’t want to comment on the poll. “I will run a positive campaign focused on my accomplishments and goals,” he said in a one-line email he sent a few minutes later.