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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.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 22, 2006; 8:58 AM ET
Categories:  Parsing the Polls  
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Warren Tompkins is a disaster. He can't win by playing fairly in South Carolina, so he just makes up lies about people while he laughs all the way to the bank. But his mentor Lee Atwater later regretted this kind of tactic.

Posted by: Sanford Forever | February 24, 2006 12:07 AM | Report abuse

Y'all miss my point I think. If you start blaming white people for the mess in Broward County, which was democratically controlled and insinuate that it was white republicans trying to suppress blacks by creating a confusing ballot... then all you are doing is race baiting. It makes no difference if you create and us and them mentality over Jews, whites, or blacks. Just the use of the tactic is part of the problem. Racism of any stripe is a tragedy. the question is it something we want to use for political advantage of any party, or is there something better we want to be as a people? I'm only telling you my experience, and the problem that is bigger is that it was an attempt to subvert the Constitution through using emotions and hate. Hitler used exactly that tactic to divide and usurp power. It is easy to make targets, it is harder to rise above it.

As a Christian, I've been on the receiving end of a lot of mindless bigotry, stereotypes, and intolerance. Prejudice and intolerance is not restricted to any one party or any one side.

Posted by: jefferis peterson | February 23, 2006 9:41 PM | Report abuse

hey jefferis peterson

southern conservative republicans, a large majority are negro hating, queer hating, jew hating bigots...mabye not in florida but texas, south carolina, alabama, mississippi, arkansas, georgia on and on, if you dont think so, take a strong look at their anti-american confederate flag being waved, i wouldnt mind if they all didnt exist when i woke up in the morning

Posted by: bp | February 22, 2006 9:04 PM | Report abuse

I am a lawyer in Des Moines and former Iowa Democratic Party Chair. I personally received the taped push poll and have been blogging about it ever since at

This could well be a national story with legs. It's obvious by now this push poll went out in several districts.

Posted by: Gordon R. Fischer | February 22, 2006 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Push-polls are about as subtle as a trumpeting herd of elephants. On the other hand, the so-called survey that comes in the mail courtesy of your congress person is very subtle. You are asked to spend a few minutes answering questions to best help your legislator act in your interest. By the end of the questionaire you have been led to believe that he/she not only is on your page, he/she has been working hard introducing and/or voting on legislation carrying out your wishes - when actually such has not been the case.

Posted by: felicity smith | February 22, 2006 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Jomama, I think its abominable that some on the left compare Bush to Hitler. Hitler was an excellent public speaker.

Posted by: Rick in Cincy | February 22, 2006 1:38 PM | Report abuse

jomama, I support NASA's top climate scientist who said the political climate Bush has created is akin to Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany.

For government scientists the reality is there. For the rest of us, it is more convenient to ignore it.

Posted by: cynical ex-hippie | February 22, 2006 12:43 PM | Report abuse

My brother worked for Richard Viguerie's right wing fundraising organization when Mary Landreau was running fo reelection to the Senate a few year ago. Their script to little old ladies in Louisiana told them that if Sen Landreau was reelected, she would be Hillary's running mate when Hillary ran for President. Talk about scare tactics. Although being a paid soliciter for Viguerie's organization was very lucrative, my brother became sickened by the tactics and Vigueries lavish lifestyle supported by people who could ill afford to provide the funds for Vigurie to live high on the hog. He went there believing in the conservative "values" Vigurie espouses, but left completely disillusioned.

Posted by: dmoore | February 22, 2006 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Local Republicans in Loudoun County, VA, have been using push polls for the past 5 years (or more). Their attempt to do so in a recent special election failed, as their candidate lost in every precinct. In talking to voters many of them recognized this techinque and it was just another reason to vote against the candidate using it. Voters in Virginia are starting to wise up to this despicable technique and aren't fooled by it. When Republican polsters realize this they'll stop doing it.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 22, 2006 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Jefferis, the call you got in 2000 was WRONG. But it wasn't being done on the Gore side alone--Bush's cronies were doing the same thing on the other side. To lump these pols to one side or the other is not accurate.

The problem with these polls is that they work! Complaining will do nothing to stop it. The lowest form of human puts these things together and another slime ball okays its production in the field. Until a national candidate actually tells his people to stop this mess, its not going to stop.

Posted by: jenniferm | February 22, 2006 11:36 AM | Report abuse

"To suggest that criticism of them is akin to Hitler's attacks on Jews is to make light of the very real dangers created by racism in America today. "

Perhaps so, but do you also object to the people who call accuse Bush of being Hitler?

Posted by: jomama | February 22, 2006 11:30 AM | Report abuse

Just for clarification: a push poll can be put in the field in under 12 hours, if the group using it already has a database of telephone numbers. The fact that you got a call within a day or two of the election doesn't mean the push poll was pre-planned at all, it just means that the group making the call reacted swiftly to the situation in Florida.

On a more subjective note, you overreach to an offensive degree by trying to draw an analogy between white Republicans in today's America and Jews in Third Reich Germany. White Republicans control almost every aspect of this country. To suggest that criticism of them is akin to Hitler's attacks on Jews is to make light of the very real dangers created by racism in America today.

Posted by: Lily | February 22, 2006 11:07 AM | Report abuse

How about a push poll that attempts to subvert the Constitution and create a de facto coup? After the 2000 election, within a day of the Florida indecision, I received a push poll call in Pennsylvania, saying, "Aren't you upset that the George Bush is trying to steal this election and deprive, you, African-Americans and other minorities of the rights?"
I was shaken and highly offended by this call on several accounts.

First of all, it was an attempt to stir up public emotions to override the democratic process and the electoral college of its constitutional role of deciding the outcome of the election. If successful, it would have created mob rule rather than allow the legal process to continue. Remember, at this time the Florida Supreme Court had not even been approached over the matter. Why was I, a person in PA been called about a matter that was obviously a state issue in Florida? Why was I being enlisted to force a political override of the electoral process?

Second, I was highly offended by the Mein Kampf strategy being waged: the only reason FL was up in the air because a lot of white racists were trying to suppress blacks. The fact that it was a democrat county, that the ballots were approved by democrat politicians, etc... did not matter. The only thing that mattered was that republicans are white, rich, and racist. This bothered me because if this kind of strategy succeeds with the electorate, then we are no different than Hitler's Germany, where instead of Jews being the cause of all our problems, its whites who happen to be republican. The class warfare strategy of the Gore campaign sent chills down my spine.

Finally, it offended me because this push poll happened so soon after the disputed results that it had to be pre-planned! This attempt to stir up false racist offenses, subvert the constitution and use class warfare to undermine an election had been planned in advance as a viable strategy.

All I can say is, God help us. If we descend to this level, we will not have a republic, but a tyranny of demagogues.

Posted by: Jefferis Peterson | February 22, 2006 10:23 AM | Report abuse

Just disgusting! Don't even have the spine to stand up and say you did the poll. What does that say about the ethics, character and integrity of people.

And why John McCain goes out of his way to kiss the a$$ of George Bush is even more pathetic.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 22, 2006 10:05 AM | Report abuse

I hope these polls push Sweeney out of office. He is an embarassment as my congressman. All he was concerned about last year was steroids in baseball and didn't even bother to study the specifics of baseball's drug testing policy. He sounded like a fool in interviews and it was so pathetic that he got bashed on sports talk radio for being a poor politician. John Sweeney needs to go ASAP.

Posted by: Glenn Gervasio | February 22, 2006 9:58 AM | Report abuse

If Americans were better educated would these polls even work? If receiving a PHd today required the intelligence level of a highschool graduate in 1960 would these polls even work? UT Arlington actually has two education professor teaching that the size of a person's nose is a cultural factor - if we cannot educate PH's how are we to educate highschool children. If we cannot educate highschool children how are we to maintain an educated electorate?

Push Polls are a result of our failed universities.

Bobby Wightman-Cervantes
Brownsville, Texas

Posted by: Bobby Wightman-Cervantes | February 22, 2006 9:24 AM | Report abuse

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