Parsing the Polls: Unmasking the "Push Poll"
When is a political poll not a poll? When it's a "push poll."
The push poll is not a poll in any real way; rather it poses as a survey in order to disseminate negative information in the context of a campaign.
No subject is more hotly debated in the world of campaigns than these rightly-named "advocacy calls" (in the words of Roll Call Columnist Stu Rothenberg). Often-times brutally effective, the tactic is looked upon with disdain by prominent pollsters of both partisan stripes who believe using the term "poll" to describe it does a disservice to their industry.
Let's take a quick look at the history of this strategy.
Perhaps the most well-known example of push calling came during the 2000 Republican presidential primary fight between then Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain -- following the latter's stunning upset victory in the New Hampshire primary. After New Hampshire, the South Carolina primary became a key battleground where the Bush campaign fought to stop McCain's momentum and both sides pulled out all the stops. That included a series of phone calls to GOP primary voters dishing dirt on McCain including the (false) allegation that he had fathered an illegitimate black child. Bush's campaign denied any knowledge or responsibility for the calls. After Bush's win in the Palmetto State, he became the subject of a series of anonymous calls in the Michigan primary alleging that he was "anti-Catholic."
Democratic pollster Mark Blumenthal (aka "Mystery Pollster") has unearthed a push poll of more recent vintage going on in congressional districts in Iowa and New York. Make sure to read Blumenthal's full account of the tactics used, but in short here's what he's found:
In at least two House districts (held by Iowa Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell and New York Republican Rep. John Sweeney) voters have received a call posing as a survey. Two questions are posed. The first says: "Al Gore strongly criticized President Bush for wiretapping American citizens without a warrant. Congressman Leonard Boswell supports President Bush's wiretapping program." Voters can push "1" if they agree with the President, "2" if they disagree and "3" if they're not sure. Pushing "3" leads the respondent to a second question: "Do you support the re election of Congressman Leonard Boswell?" Again, you can push "1" if you support the Iowa Democrat and "2" if you don't. The call then terminates.
Why would a group -- even anonymously -- use these tactics? Blumenthal's theory revolves around White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove's recent comments that the 2006 election should be decided on the issue of national security.
Quoting Blumenthal: "Someone out there would like to see Rove's hoped for 'debate' occur in as many Congressional races as possible. So they are making thousands of calls into Districts held by moderate Democrats spreading the rumor that those officeholders support Bush on wiretapping. They know that Democratic partisans... will be outraged and put pressure on their representatives to harshly criticize Bush on wiretapping. If the members respond to the pressure, the dirty tricksters get the debate they hoped for. If not, the Democrats are forced to put out fires ignited by the push poll in their base."
Regardless of the aims of these calls, pollsters and other political professional explain that there is a wide gap between negative calls and a real survey. One tests messages; the other attempts to deliver them.
"A poll is a small sample survey of anywhere from 300 to 1,000 people, the sole purpose of which is to measure opinion or test how opinion is affected by information," said Rothenberg. "Advocacy calls are done by phone bank [and feature] a large number of calls in the thousands and even tens of thousands the purpose of which is persuasion."
Glen Bolger, a partner in the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, says that while he often conducts polling that seeks to test weaknesses and strengths of both his and the opposition's candidates, that kind of message-testing is a far cry from the tactics employed by push calls.
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