08/22/2006 12:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

So What *Is* A Push Poll?

Over the weekend, Greg Sargent of TPMCafe reported on what he considers "push polling, no question," involving some calls that trash two Democratic candidates for Congress, Kirsten Gillibrand in New York's 20th District and, more recently, Patty Weiss in Arizona's 8th District.

With all due respect to Sargent and his source, Mickey Carroll of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, both are using the wrong definition of "push polling." It is certainly more than poll questions that feed "the negative stuff," as Carroll puts it.  A true push poll is not a poll at all.  It is a telemarketing smear masquerading as a poll.

Back in February, in commenting on a different set of calls made, ironically, into the very same New York 20th District, I described real push polling in detail:

Many organizations
have posted definitions (AAPOR, NCPP, CMOR, CBS News, Campaigns and
, Wikipedia), but the important thing to remember is that a
"push poll" is not a poll at all. It's a fraud, an attempt to
disseminate information under the guise of a legitimate survey. The
proof is in the intent of the person doing it.

To understand what I mean, imagine for a moment that you are an
ethically challenged political operative ready to play the hardest of
hardball. Perhaps you want to spread an untruth about an opponent or
"rumor" so salacious or farfetched that you dare not spread it yourself
(such as the classic lie about John McCain's supposed "illegitimate
black child"). Or perhaps your opponent has taken a "moderate" position
consistent with that of your boss, but likely to inflame the opponent's
base (such as Republican voting to raise taxes or a Democrat supporting
"Bush's wiretapping program").

You want to spread the rumor or exploit the issue without leaving
fingerprints. So you hire a telemarketer to make phone calls that
pretend to be a political poll. You "ask" only a question or two aimed
at spreading the rumor (example: "would you be more or less likely to
support John McCain if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate child
who was black?"). You want to make as many calls as quickly as
possible, so you do not bother with the time consuming tasks performed
by most real pollsters, such as asking a lot of questions or asking to
speak to a specific or random individual within the household.

Again, the proof is in the intent: If the sponsor intends to
communicate a message to as many voters as possible rather than measure
opinions or test messages among a sample of voters, it qualifies as a
"push poll."

We can usually identify a true push poll by a few characteristics
that serve as evidence of that intent. "Push pollsters" (and MP hates
that term) aim to reach as many voters as possible, so they typically
make tens or even hundreds of thousands of calls. Real surveys usually
attempt to interview only a few hundred or perhaps a few thousand
respondents (though not always). Push polls typically ask just a
question or two, while real surveys are almost always much longer and
typically conclude with demographic questions about the respondent
(such as age, race, education, income). The information presented in a
true push poll is usually false or highly distorted, but not always. A
call made for the purposes of disseminating information under the guise
of survey
is still a fraud - and thus still a "push poll" - even if the
facts of the "questions" are technically true or defensible.

So it is not just about questions that "push" respondents one way or another, not just about being negative, not even about lying (although lying on a poll is certainly an ethical transgression).  It is about something that is not really survey at all.

The calls that the Albany Times Union reported do not fit the definition of push polling.  First, the calls involved more than just a question or two.  They included a series of "fairly innocuous questions," such as "whether the country is headed in the right direction," Bush's job rating and the initial congressional vote.  Second -- and this is a big clue -- one respondent reports that he hung up in anger one night, "only to have a different person call back the next night asking him to finish answering the questions (he did)."  That sort of "call back" is something a real pollster would do but a "push pollster" would never bother with.  Third, the Times Union's reporting plausibly traces the calls to the Tarrance Group, a polling firm that has long conducted legitimate internal polling for Republican campaigns. 

I am in no position to evaluate the substance of the attacks reportedly made in the calls in NY-20 or AZ-08, and I will certainly not try to defend them.  The attacks tested in those surveys may well have been untrue, distorted or unfair.  If so, they deserve the same sort of condemnation would we give if delivered in a television or radio ad or in an attack made in a debate.  If the attacker is lying, it is unethical regardless of the mode.  A television advertisement should not lie and neither should a pollster.  But a lie alone does not a "push poll" make.

Is this just a semantic distinction?  I don't think so.  Just about every campaign pollster, Democrat and Republican, uses surveys to test negatives messages.  If you think negative ads by Democrats, including these examples, were produced without benefit of survey based message testing, you're dreaming.  If we choose to define a "push poll" as a survey that merely tests "the negative stuff," then we better be ready to accuse just about every competitive campaign of the same "dirty tricks."

If a pollster lies in a real survey, that's sleazy and wrong.  If candidates distort the truth, let's call them on it.  But if we confuse negative campaigning -- or the survey research that supports it -- with the dirty tricks of true "push polling" then we too are distorting the truth.