Push poll

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A push poll is an interactive marketing technique, most commonly employed during political campaigning, in which an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of voters under the guise of conducting a poll.

In a push poll, large numbers of voters are contacted briefly (often less than 60 seconds), and little or no effort is made to collect and analyze response data. Instead, the push poll is a form of telemarketing-based propaganda and rumor mongering, masquerading as a poll. Push polls may rely on innuendo or knowledge gleaned from opposition research on an opponent.

Push polls are generally viewed as a form of negative campaigning.[1] Indeed, the term is commonly (and confusingly) used in a broader sense to refer to legitimate polls that aim to test negative political messages.[2] Future usage of the term will determine whether the strict or broad definition becomes the most favored definition. However, in all such polls, the pollster asks leading questions or suggestive questions that "push" the interviewee towards adopting an unfavourable response towards the political candidate.

Legislation in Australia's Northern Territory defined push-polling as any activity conducted as part of a telephone call made, or a meeting held, during the election period for an election, that: (a) is, or appears to be, a survey (for example, a telephone opinion call or telemarketing call); and (b) is intended to influence an elector in deciding his or her vote.[3]

Push polling has been condemned by the American Association of Political Consultants[4] and the American Association for Public Opinion Research.[5]

Origin of push polling

Richard Nixon was one of push polling's pioneers. In his very first campaign, a successful 1946 run for the U.S. House against Democrat incumbent Jerry Voorhis, Democratic voters throughout the district reported receiving telephone calls that began: "This is a friend of yours, but I can't tell you who I am. Did you know that Jerry Voorhis is a communist?" (he wasn't) – at which point the caller hung up. A citizen later came forward admitting that she worked for Nixon for $9 a day, in a telephone-bank room where the attack calls were made.[6]

Types of push polls and their effects

The mildest forms of push polling are designed merely to remind voters of a particular issue. For instance, a push poll might ask respondents to rank candidates based on their support of an issue in order to get voters thinking about that issue.

Many push polls are negative attacks on other candidates. These attacks often contain suggestions not stated as facts.[citation needed] They ask questions such as "If you knew that Candidate Smith was being investigated for corruption, would you be more likely to vote for him, or less likely?" The question does not state that any investigation has taken place, so it is not a lie, but it puts in the respondent's mind the idea that Candidate Smith may be corrupt.

One way to distinguish between push polling as a tactic and polls which legitimately seek information is the sample size. Genuine polls make do with small, representative samples, whereas push polls can be very large, like any other mass marketing effort.

True push polls tend to be very short, with only a handful of questions, to maximise the number of calls that can be made. Any data obtained (if used at all) is secondary in importance to negatively affecting the targeted candidate. Legitimate polls are often used by candidates to test potential messages. They frequently ask about either positive and negative statements about any or all major candidates in an election and always include demographic questions.

The main advantage of push polls is that they are an effective way of maligning an opponent ("pushing" voters towards a predetermined point of view) while avoiding direct responsibility for the distorted or false information suggested (but not directly alleged) in the push poll. They are risky for this same reason: if credible evidence emerges that the polls were directly ordered by a campaign or candidate, it could do serious damage to that campaign. Push polls are also relatively expensive, having a far higher cost per voter than radio or television commercials. Consequently push polls are most used in elections with fewer voters, such as party primaries, or in close elections where a relatively small change in votes can make the difference between victory or defeat.



In March 2011, the Daily Telegraph reported that the Australian Labor Party (ALP) was referred to the New South Wales (NSW) Electoral Commission after it was alleged to have used "push polling" in Newcastle to discredit independent candidate John Tate. Labor Party officials employed a market research firm to conduct the polling, telling voters Mr Tate was the Labor mayor of Newcastle, when in fact he was not. It has been suggested that Labor was worried its brand was so damaged in one of its traditional seats, it branded the popular independent as one of its own to discredit him. Labor polling firm Fieldworks Market Research admitted to the Telegraph reporter that the script used when calling voters branded Mr Tate a "Labor" candidate, but said the script was provided by the ALP.[7] It is not known, at least in public, whether the Electoral Commission responded to this referral.

United States

Perhaps the most famous use of push polls is in the 2000 United States Republican Party primaries, when it was alleged that George W. Bush's campaign used push polling to torpedo the campaign of Senator John McCain. Voters in South Carolina reportedly were asked "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?" This hypothetical question seemed like a suggestion, although without substance. It was heard by thousands of primary voters.[8] McCain and his wife had in fact adopted a Bengali girl. Bush had previously used push polls in his 1994 bid for Texas Governor against incumbent Ann Richards. Callers asked voters "whether they would be more or less likely to vote for Governor Richards if they knew that lesbians dominated on her staff."[9]

In the 2008 presidential election, Jewish voters in several states were targeted by various push polls that linked Barack Obama to various anti-Israel positions. For example, various push polls suggested that Obama was a Muslim; Obama's church was anti-American and anti-Israel; Obama often met pro-Palestinian leaders in Chicago (and had met PLO leaders); a Hamas leader had endorsed an Obama victory; and that Obama had called for a summit of Muslim nations excluding Israel if elected president. The Jewish Council for Education & Research, an organization that endorsed Obama, denounced the push polls as disinformation and lies.[10]

Political consultant Lee Atwater was also well known for using push-polling among his aggressive campaign tactics, though he repented in later life when terminally ill from brain cancer, and having converted to Catholicism.[11]

Legal actions

The state legislature has attempted to restrict the practice in New Hampshire.[12] [13]

The parliament of the Northern Territory (Australia) has legislated to restrict push polling in that, during an election, the caller is required to identify his/her name and address.[3]

The Australian Electoral Act, as amended, appears to ban push-polling, although this term is not mentioned specifically. Section 329 states: "A person shall not, during the relevant period in relation to an election under this Act, print, publish or distribute, or cause, permit or authorize to be printed, published or distributed, any matter or thing that is likely to mislead or deceive an elector in relation to the casting of a vote … Publish includes publish by radio, television, internet or telephone.".[14]

See also


  1. Pollster.com: So What *Is* A Push Poll?
  2. Feld, K. G. (2000). What are push polls, anyway? Campaign & Elections, 21(4, May), 62-63, 70. Feld, K. G. (2003). Push polls: What are they? In: Winning Elections (R. A. Faucheux, editor), pages 184 - 189. new York: M. Evans & Co. ISBN 1590770269.
  3. 3.0 3.1 / Northern Territory Electoral Act, Section 271: Offence relating to push-polling.
  4. http://www.theaapc.org/about/pushpolling/
  5. AAPOR | AAPOR Statement on "Push" Polls
  6. Sabato, Larry J. (1996). When push comes to poll. Washington Monthly, June, volume 28 (6), pages 26 - 31.
  7. Benson, Simon (March 16, 2011). Labor accused of smear candidate's name. http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/labor-accused-of-smear-candidates-name/story-fn6b3v4f-1226022099138
  8. The anatomy of a smear campaign - The Boston Globe
  9. Test by Fire: the War Presidency of George W. Bush by Robert H. Swansbrough (2008), p. 47. ISBN 978-0-230-60100-0.
  10. Smith, Ben (September 15, 2008). Jewish voters complain of anti-Obama poll. http://www.politico.com/blogs/bensmith/0908/Jewish_voters_complain_of_antiObama_poll.html?showall
  11. "Gravely Ill, Atwater Offers Apology". The New York Times. AP. January 13, 1991.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Law Has Polling Firms Leery of Work in New Hampshire - The New York Times
  13. 2010 New Hampshire Statutes: Elections: Political expenditures and contributions. 13 NH 664.13 NH 664
  14. COMMONWEALTH ELECTORAL ACT 1918 - SECT 329. http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/sinodisp/au/legis/cth/consol_act/cea1918233/s329.html?stem=0&synonyms=0&query=internet.

External links