10/13/2006 04:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Push Polling - What Is It?

This piece originally appeared on The Patriot Project

By Dave Johnson

Patriot Project has been receiving reports of “push polling” occurring in Congressional districts around the country.  We expect the use of this tactic to increase between now and election day and it is likely that push polling could be a major factor in the coming elections. 

So what is push polling? 

The online Wikipedia has this description of push-polling, 

A push poll is a political campaign technique in which an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of respondents under the guise of conducting a poll.

Here’s how it works.  You’re at home, relaxing after dinner, and busily skipping past the nasty campaign commercials that are polluting your TV-watching.  The phone rings, and a person – or more likely an automated voice – says they are conducting an opinion poll, and would you like your opinion to be included in the results?  You are flattered – you’ve heard about opinion polls but probably never knew anyone who was actually contacted, so you say yes.  You are asked which candidate you support. 

Now this is where things get nasty.  As the “poll” progresses you start to hear a series of “questions” that are designed to influence rather than measure your thinking.  “If you knew that candidate X eats moldy cereal for breakfast, would you still support that candidate?  If you knew that candidate X had seven wives would you still support that candidate?  If you knew that candidate X keeps teenage slaves in his basement and eats one every Sunday as part of a Satanic ritual, would you still support that candidate?” Etc.  The questions are often coordinated with organized whisper-campaigns, leafletting or other “stealth” tactics designed to disguise the source.

The nature of the information passed through this method lends itself to word-of-mouth transmission.  In 2000, for example, the Bush campaign used surrogate organizations to conduct push polls in South Carolina telling voters that opposing candidate John McCain “chose to sire children without marriage,” had “a black child” and that his wife was a drug addict.  This was exactly the kind of gossipy message designed for people to talk about at work, etc.

The Truth About Push Polls, tells what to look out for,

"A push poll is political telemarketing masquerading as a poll. No one is really collecting information. No one will analyze the data. You can tell a push poll because it is very short, even too short. (It has to be very short to reach tens of thousands of potential voters, one by one). It will not include any demographic questions. The "interviewer" will sometimes ask to speak to a specific voter by name. And, of course, a push poll will contain negative information - sometimes truthful, sometimes not - about the opponent."

Push polls are, unfortunately, effective.  The method bestows an impression of credibility on the information being passed to the caller.  Thinking they are participating in a legitimate public opinion poll, many people naturally assume they are being asked about something that has been in the news or is common knowledge.  People assume such information is valid and have no way to know that the call is nothing more than one more campaign commercial, inn disguise and arriving through an unexpected channel. 

Another reason push polling is effective is that, by presenting the campaign message as an opinion poll, it reaches an audience that would otherwise tune it out, like skipping past TV commercials while watching TV.  As people become immunized against commercials it takes more and more exposures to the ad’s message before it begins to sink in.  But people are listening, paying attention, because they think they are being asked to respond to a “question.”  If voters understood that the call was coming from a campaign they would not only tune it out, it could backfire on the source.

A third reason push polls are effective is that they are conducted “under the radar.”  Large numbers of people can be reached with a push poll before word starts to get out that this is happening.  So campaigns do not have time to mount an effective response.


If you receive a call asking your opinion – and then does anything besides just ask who you intend to vote for, you are probably the victim of a push poll.  If the call tries to give any information whatsoever about a candidate, it is not a poll asking your opinion.  It is a campaign pushing you negative information in order to influence you to vote against the candidate they're talking to you about in the call.



The Patriot Project is working to expose the front groups, their funding, their connections and their tactics.