Yesterday, the Iowa Independent news website ran a story about
a Democrat from Iowa city who says he participated
in a long political survey that tested reactions to positive statements about
Hillary Clinton and negative statements about John Edwards' "$400 haircut" and
Barack Obama's votes "to fund" the Iraq war. Politico's Ben Smith linked
to that story, as well as a recent DailyKos diary
about a similar call received by a New Hampshire Democrat that mentioned the
recent unflattering article about Edwards in the New York Times Magazine. TPMCafe's Greg Sargent located
another respondent from Iowa
and noted that all three said the call came from a firm called "PSA
Interviewing," the telephone call center of the firm of Clinton Pollster, Mark
This is not the first such story to involve surveys testing
negative messages about Clinton's
opponents originating from "PSA Interviewing." Similar reports
a few months made it into the profile of Penn by The Nation's Ari Berman
Melber, including a
response from Penn that "the charges were false and that ‘this firm conducts
standard political and market research polls...and does not do push polling.'"
It's not a push poll. It's just
this side of a fine line between message testing, and a push poll, but it's not
a push poll. Now, were it a 30 second to 1 minute call with just negatives,
going to tens of thousands of people (ie, not a standard 300-1000 sample size)
THAT would be a push poll.
Remember, a "push poll" is not a poll at all but an effort
to communicate a message under the guise
of legitimate research (more here and here).
And let's give due credit to Greg Sargent, Ben Smith and the Iowa Independent's
Chase Martyn for avoiding the "push poll" label altogether.
2) Even if only
"message testing," the story does not end there. Pollsters still have an
ethical obligation to tell the truth to respondents, and this incident raises
some interesting questions about whether campaigns should be willing to take
ownership of the messages they allow pollsters to test.
In this case, no one seems to be questioning the truthfulness
of the messages tested (although we have not seen the verbatim text). What
seems more at issue is whether these sorts of negative attacks are appropriate,
even if technically true.
Consider the context: Message testing" is ubiquitous in
campaigns. Virtually every campaign that hires a pollster will conduct surveys
that test messages, and most will test negative messages about their opponents.
In my career as a campaign pollster, I wrote hundreds of surveys that did exactly
that. And I can testify that campaigns frequently test messages they opt out of
using in the campaign. At this stage, they are keeping all options open.
Campaigns also consider the benchmark message testing survey one of the most
closely held documents in the campaign and are hugely reluctant to discussing
details with reporters.
What I find fascinating is the way the Internet is forcing a
change in that culture. Ten or twenty years ago, if a voter participated in a
"message testing" poll, they might have the same angry reaction as the
respondents quoted in the stories above. They might mention their experience to
a friend or colleague, but few bothered to call a reporter. Now, however, if
you call 600 or 1000 voters, the odds are good that a handful will know how to
leave a comment on a blog, and rather than ask friends or family, they will
turn to thousands of readers of, say, DailyKos and ask, "what the heck was
that?" And given the nature of the blogosphere, one comment will beget another,
and these various testimonials will quickly get into the hands of political
All too often in the not so distant past, campaign
consultants operated under the illusion that they could test the "family
jewels" of a campaign in secrecy. Now, the reality is that if you put it on a
questionnaire, especially in the context of a high profile campaign, it stands
a good chance of being discussed somewhere on the Internet and found out by the
political press. As such, campaigns will need to reconsider their willingness
to take responsibility for the messages they test.
Last year, I argued
that message testing polls "deserve the same level of scrutiny as any charge or
statement made in the political realm." I think that works in both directions. We
ought not holler "push poll" whenever someone tests a negative message on a
legitimate survey, implying that the research is somehow more ethically
questionable than running the same message in a television add. Similarly, we
ought not exempt the testing of those messages from criticism simply because it
In my last few years as a campaign pollster, I tried to give
my clients the same advice: Don't put anything in a message testing
questionnaire that you are not willing to publicly defend. If the Clinton campaign is
willing to test the negative messages alleged above, they ought to be willing
to take ownership of those messages and the tactics they imply. If not, then we
are all left to draw our own conclusions.
Update: Politico's Ben Smith has much more.