Push Polling, What To Watch Out For

This piece originally appeared on The Patriot Project

If you receive a call that you suspect is a push poll, Patriot Project wants to know about it. (Leave a comment following this post.)  We are tracking the use of this unethical campaign tactic.

People across the country are receiving calls from organizations claiming to be taking opinion polls, but then assaulting the listener with the most horrible, slanderous, nasty  smears about candidates that sometimes continues until the listener hangs up.  The recipients of such calls are victims of push polls.

A previous Patriot Project post, Push Polling – What Is It?, discussed what push polling is and why it is effective. 

Push polls are, unfortunately, effective.  The method bestows an impression of credibility on the information being passed to the caller.  Thinking they are participating in a legitimate public opinion poll, many people naturally assume they are being asked about something that has been in the news or is common knowledge.  People assume such information is valid and have no way to know that the call is nothing more than one more campaign commercial, inn disguise and arriving through an unexpected channel.

Another reason push polling is effective is that, by presenting the campaign message as an opinion poll, it reaches an audience that would otherwise tune it out, like skipping past TV commercials while watching TV.  As people become immunized against commercials it takes more and more exposures to the ad’s message before it begins to sink in.  But people are listening, paying attention, because they think they are being asked to respond to a “question.”  If voters understood that the call was coming from a campaign they would not only tune it out, it could backfire on the source.

A third reason push polls are effective is that they are conducted “under the radar.”  Large numbers of people can be reached with a push poll before word starts to get out that this is happening.  So campaigns do not have time to mount an effective response.

Where does push-polling come from?  According to SourceWatch,

The idea of using polls to have a political impact was devised by Hans Haacke as a radical artistic exercise in 1969. This is Herbert Schiller’s account of it in Culture Inc.:

[. . .]

In 1970, Haacke asked [museum] visitors to a show that included his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to ballot on the question: "Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November?" At the end of the twelve-week exhibition, the ballot boxes had registered the following results:
Yes   68.7%
No   31.3%

Haacke, not unexpectedly, has not had another show at MOMA.
—Herbert I. Schiller, Culture Inc., Oxford UP 1989, pp. 96–97.

Tobacco companies embraced and extended the use of push-polling and by 1995 the tactic was beginning to draw attention.  It was also being used to influence politics.  For example, according to a 1997 issue of Texans for Public Just Lobby Watch [PDF document here ], Karl Rove was a paid consultant to the Phillip Morris tobacco company from 1991 until 1996, at the same time as he was a paid consultant to Governor Bush.  Rove was involved in tobacco push-polling in Texas.  In fact, many of the political consultants and organizations involved with the front groups using push-polling efforts in campaigns this year got their start working in the tobacco industry.

Possibly the most dramatic use of push polls to date was during the smear campaign against John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary fight against George W. Bush.  From Wikipedia,

 [. . .] Perhaps the most famous alleged use of push polls is in the 2000 United States Republican Party primaries, when it was alleged that George W. Bush‘s campaign used push polling to torpedo the campaign of Senator John McCain. Voters in South Carolina reportedly were asked "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?", an allegation that had no substance, but planted the idea of undisclosed allegations in the minds of thousands of primary voters[1]. McCain and his wife had in fact adopted a Bangladeshi girl.

Push polling is condemned by legitimate polling organizations and associations.  The Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) issued a statement in 2004 [ PDF document here ] saying,

As we move into the election season, the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) has started to receive complaints about "push" polls. A push poll is a form of negative campaigning disguised as a political poll that is designed to change opinions, not measure them. Legitimate polls accurately describe the candidates and issues in order to understand voter reactions. Push polls frequently present distorted information in order to influence voters. Push polls go beyond the ethical boundaries of political polling and bombard voters with problematic statements about candidates or issues in an effort to manufacture negative voter attitudes.

[. . .] AAPOR members sign a Code of Professional Ethics and Practices that requires disclosure of minimal methodological details about surveys when the results are released. (The full code can be found at http://www.aapor.org/pdfs/code.pdf) The Code calls for disclosing at least the following items:

1. Who sponsored the survey, and who conducted it.

2. The exact wording of questions asked, including the text of any preceding instruction or explanation to the interviewer or respondents that might reasonably be expected to affect the response.

3. A definition of the population under study, and a description of the sampling frame used to identify this population.

4. A description of the sample selection procedure, giving a clear indication of the method by which the respondents were selected by the researcher, or whether the respondents were entirely self-selected.

5. Size of samples and, if applicable, completion rates and information on eligibility criteria and screening procedures.

6. A discussion of the precision of the findings, including, if appropriate, estimates of sampling error, and a description of any weighting or estimating procedures used.

7. Which results are based on parts of the sample, rather than on the total sample.

8. Method, location, and dates of data collection.

If you feel you’ve been contacted by a push poll, try to get the name and location of the organization doing the "interviewing." Ask about the sponsors, the number of people called, the questions asked, and how the information from the poll is being used. [emphasis added]

Another AAPOR document [PDF document here] includes,

How do you spot a push poll?

– The organizations conducting these “polls” are not usually recognized as professional pollsters.

- Push polls typically “call” thousands of people. The people called are not a representative sample of voters. Instead, they’re people who are targeted because they’re thought to be undecided voters or supporters of a rival candidate.

- The truth of the questions is stretched or fabricated.

- Usually people’s answers are not tabulated; the intent is to create a negative effect on potential voters.

… - AAPOR urges its members and the media to uncover push-polling and help us alert the public.

This unethical, slanderous campaign tactic is in wide use this year.  Let others know what it is, and why they should not believe the things they hear when they receive these calls.