03/15/2007 11:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rothenberg on "Push Polls"

I have a Google News search for the term "push poll" which reliably produces items almost every day. More often than not, news items use the term --
inappropriately -- to describe a poll, or poll question, that someone finds
objectionable or biased. I have written about the subject often (most recently here, here, here
and here),
but I have to concede that Roll Call columnist and political commentator Stu
Rothernberg has created a simple,
concise review
that ought to be required reading for any reporter, editor
or blogger before using the phrase "push poll" in a story.

To Rothenberg, it all boils down to the difference between
legitimate research and "advocacy calls:"

Polls are methodologically rigorous
public opinion surveys of generally 500 to 1,000 people intended to learn about
and measure voters' opinions and test possible campaign messages. Advocacy
telephone calls, on the other hand, are made to tens of thousands of people and
are intended to create or change opinion...


As I have argued every year for the
past five and apparently will have to continue doing until I have taken my last
breath, push polls are really advocacy calls aimed at thousands of recipients.
They are like television or radio ads, except they are delivered over the
telephone. They seek to convey positive or negative information to influence a
voter's final vote decision.

Advocacy calls are not, in any shape or form, public opinion surveys.

Amen. But the hard part are those polls that seem to fall
somewhere in between. More often than not, Rothenberg notes, complaints about
"push polls" result from internal campaign surveys "that include very negative
information about a candidate for office." Here, he puts it plainly:

This kind of information can be
part of an advocacy telephone call or part of a legitimate poll. When they are
in a real survey, they are known as "push questions," because they seek to
measure which questions actually push voter sentiment and which issues can be
used by a candidate to win a race.

Push questions are not the same thing as push polls. Push questions, which are
included in a survey of only 500 to 1,000 respondents, are a legitimate part of
a public opinion poll that seeks to test effective messages.

You may not agree that "push questions" are legitimate or
ethical. Their content may be simply objectionable (depending on your politics)
or flatly untrue. True or not, such questions may anger respondents and the they
may produce deceptive results (if presented out of context). However, it is
important to distinguish between untrue or deceptive questions in the context
of a legitimate attempt to measure opinion and the sort of dirty trick fraud
that aims to broadly communicate a message under
the guise
of legitimate research.