For the Thousandth Time: Don’t Call Them ‘Push Polls’

Stuart Rothenberg March 12, 2007 · 12:10 AM EDT

I probably sound like a broken record, but I’ve had it with people who still don’t know the difference between political polls and advocacy telephone 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.

It really isn’t all that difficult to understand the difference. Any high school graduate ought to be able to figure it out. That’s why I find it so frustrating that journalists and politicians don’t make distinctions. This year again, a bipartisan group of Members of Congress has introduced legislation to “prevent push polls.”

The term “push poll” never should have entered our lexicon, since it does nothing but confuse two very different and totally unrelated uses of the telephone.

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.

Phone banks established to deliver advocacy messages are designed to make large numbers of calls and have no interest in getting responses from those called, except possibly for identifying supporters, opponents or the undecided for the purpose of deciding whether those people should receive still more advocacy or get-out-the-vote calls.

Hiring a firm to do 500 or 800 advocacy calls in a Congressional district or state — where thousands or tens of thousands or even millions of voters are going to go to the polls — would be idiotic, since it wouldn’t accomplish what advocacy calls are trying to do, which is change opinion.

Why do I get all hot and bothered about this? Because referring to advocacy calls as push polls adds to public cynicism and, more importantly, discredits a legitimate survey research approach.

The new legislative push really is no more than an updated effort. Two years ago, Wisconsin Rep. Tom Petri (R) introduced the ill-named Push Poll Disclosure Act of 2005, and he has done so again in the 110th Congress.

Petri may not be intentionally adding to the confusion between advocacy calls and public opinion surveys, but he certainly is doing so by constantly referring to push polls and even putting those words in the title of the bill.

Petri seems concerned about telephone calls that include very negative information about a candidate for office. 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.

My guess is that someone who didn’t know very much about survey research — I’m putting my money on some twentysomething who worked in the media — heard about push questions and incorrectly confused them with advocacy calls, creating the illogical term “push polls.”

Serious polls can include push questions that contain some explosive or even incorrect information, but that doesn’t make them advocacy calls. Testing possible messages is a legitimate survey research function, and as long as the question is asked of a small sample and seeks to get a response to know whether the issue is useful in an election, it really doesn’t matter how negative the message is.

Congress certainly ought not to interfere with legitimate pollsters’ (and I’m including incompetent pollsters here, too) efforts to accumulate data or test messages, no matter how negative they might be.

If Congress wants to require a disclaimer on advocacy calls, the way it has done on TV spots, that’s certainly reasonable. But messing with polls would be a terrible idea.

Wisely, in defining the problem, the Petri proposal seems to focus on the number of calls made, which is an important distinction between polls and advocacy calls. But throwing around phrases like push polls doesn’t make me very confident that Members of Congress know what they are talking about.

A first step toward sounding smart might be to change the language of any bill that seeks to regulate advocacy telephone calls. It also might be nice if members of the media banned “push polls” from their vocabulary.