What is a Push Poll and When Should You Use One?

What exactly is a push poll, how does it differ from other political polls, and should you use one in your own campaign? We’ll answer all of your questions below in this quick lesson on push polling

Have you ever received a call that initially sounded like a political survey but was filled with loaded questions seemingly targeted towards a particular candidate or issue? Then you were likely the receiver of a push poll phone call. 

What exactly is a push poll, how does it differ from other political polls, and should you use one in your own campaign? We’ll answer all of your questions below in this quick lesson on push polling. 

What is a Push Poll?

The name “push poll” can be just as deceiving as the act of push polling itself; that’s because what’s known as a push poll is not a legitimate poll at all, but rather a technique used to “push” voters away from one candidate or party and towards another.

Push polling is a telemarketing technique. When a voter receives a call from someone conducting a push poll, it will simply sound like the person on the other end is conducting a standard opinion or research poll. However, the voter’s responses r won’t be used to gather information, and in fact, their opinions won’t be analyzed at all.

That’s because the purpose of push polls is not to conduct legitimate research. A push poll is, instead, a negative campaigning technique. The questions the caller asks are skewed, biased, and meant to sway voters away from the competition. Callers will often ask loaded questions about a specific candidate or issue.

One example of a push poll took place prior to the special election for the open U.S. House seat with the 1st Congressional District of South Carolina, in which voters received calls asking loaded questions about Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, such as, “What would you think of Elizabeth Colbert-Busch if I told you she had had an abortion?”

Of course, the responses to these questions were not analyzed. Instead, the questions themselves were simply thinly veiled ways to spread damaging (possibly false) information about Colbert-Busch in order to convince voters to vote for her opponent, Gov. Mark Stanford, instead. That is exactly how push polls work!

How do you spot a push poll and how does it differ from genuine polls, message-testing polls, and advocacy calls?

Here are some telling characteristics of a push poll:

  • It is usually very difficult to uncover what organization is behind the phone call
  • Only a few questions are asked
  • Questions are typically centered around a single candidate or issue
  • Questions are framed negatively–sometimes, but rarely, they are positive
  • Demographic questions are not asked at the beginning of the call (this is because the caller will not actually analyze responses and opinions)
  • A large number of people will be called and “polled”--sometimes as many as several thousand

A push poll is not defined by the mere fact that it contains negative information about a candidate–there are other legitimate campaign strategies that use similar tactics. A push poll should not be confused with political message-testing, advocacy calls, or legitimate polls. Below are some ways to tell the differences.

Political message-testing

Many political campaigns use “message-testing” surveys to test out the effectiveness of different campaign messages or ad content, including negative messages. 

Political message-testing is not the same thing as a push poll or a fake poll! To avoid misidentifying it as such, here are a few characteristics of message-testing polls to keep in mind, as stated on the AAPOR website:

  • “At the beginning of the call, the interviewer clearly identifies the call center actually making the calls. (However, legitimate political polling firms will often choose not to identify the client who is sponsoring the research, be it a candidate or a political party, since that could bias the survey results.)”
  • “The interview contains more than a few questions.”
  • “The questions usually ask about more than one candidate or mention both sides of an issue.”
  • “Questions, usually near the end of the interview, ask respondents to report demographic characteristics such as age, education level, and party identification.”
  • “The survey is based on a random sample of voters.”
  • “The number of respondents falls within the range of legitimate surveys, typically between 400 and 1500 interviews.”

Advocacy calls

Advocacy calls may be conducted throughout an election cycle to gather support from voters for a specific candidate–they may include negative information about another candidate, as well. This is not the same thing as a push poll.

According to the AAPC, unlike a push poll, an advocacy call doesn’t disguise itself as a poll at all. Instead, these calls are upfront about their intentions to persuade voters. Advocacy calls are considered legitimate campaigning practices, unlike push polls, which are deceptive and oftentimes frowned upon.

Legitimate polls

Of course, there are legitimate research polls that are genuinely used to assess the feelings of voters, gather responses, and analyze information. How can you tell the difference between a genuine poll and a push poll?

We already covered the telling characteristics of a push poll. On the other hand, a legitimate survey will show the following traits:

  • The call center will be identified, even if the candidate sponsoring the research is not mentioned so as not to skew the results
  • Demographic questions will likely be asked to gather information about age, race, and education. These will typically be asked at the end of the call.
  • More than a handful of questions about one candidate or issue will be asked
  • Questions regarding both sides of an issue will likely be asked 
  • The number of people surveyed will typically be between 500-1,000; not up to several thousand, unlike push polls

Are push polls illegal?

Push polls are highly deceptive and oftentimes frowned upon. But are they illegal? No.

There is currently no state that has made push polling illegal. A ban on push polling would raise concerns about First Amendment rights, as a push poll can be considered a form of free speech.

However, several states do have rules that regulate push polls. These laws require callers conducting push polls to provide certain information.

Should you use push polls in your campaign?

Here’s the truth of the matter: as we mentioned above, push polls, although regulated in some states, are not illegal. 

However, many institutions, including the American Association of Political Consultants, the Council for Marketing and Opinion Research, and the National Council on Public Pools have all denounced the practice of push polling–so if you choose to use this negative campaigning technique, it will be considered playing dirty.

At the end of the day, push polling is a legal negative campaigning technique, but before using this method yourself, we suggest you consider other options that involve a bit more integrity in order to run an honest, well-intentioned campaign.

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