« The Fix: IVR Surveys & Response Rates | Main | A Million Visits »

July 14, 2006

Lieberman Push Polls?

While public polls have been few and far between in the Connecticut Democratic primary, reports of "push polling" have been bubbling up through the blogosphere.  Some of the most recent have been quite detailed and worthy of further discussion, if only because, from what I can tell, these do not deserve the "push poll" label.  Rather, the calls described appear to be internal campaign polls testing negative messages. 

I have seen two sets of reports.  The first round drew the usual over-the-top rhetorical blasts.  Calls received in Connecticut in late June were described as by supporters of Ned Lamont as "Lieberman push polling" (here, here and here), as well as "Lieberman's Latest Dirty Trick," and "the sleaziest of campaign tactics" (by Kos himself).   

The most recent and interesting report comes from a correspondent of BranfordBoy on the blog My Left Nutmeg.  The respondent took detailed notes on all of the questions and concluded, "today, I received my first recognizable Push Poll."   The report is worth reading in full, because this call was almost certainly an internal campaign poll and not something that deserving of the label "push poll" (a point echoed -- to their credit -- by both My Left Nutmeg and the Connecticut Blog).

I have discussed push polling in more detail previously, but the defining characteristic of a true "push poll" is fraud.  It is not a poll at all -- not an effort to measure either existing opinions or reactions to political argument -- but rather an attempt to spread a rumor under the guise of a survey.  True "push polls," those that are aptly described as "the sleaziest of campaign tactics," typically involve untrue or outrageous attacks that the purveyors do not dare communicate openly.  The true "push poll" is usually just a question or two:  A question about vote preference, the scurrilous attack and then a quick goodbye.  Since the "push pollster" does not care about measuring or counting anything, they do not waste time on questions about other issues or demographics. 

In this case, the poll described by the BranfordBoy's correspondent has all the hallmarks of an internal campaign poll, most likely conducted on behalf of the Lieberman campaign.  It asks some questions to identify likely primary voters, a job rating for Lieberman, favorable ratings for Bush, Dodd, Lamont and Lieberman, vote questions on the Gubernatorial and Senate primaries, a "certainty" follow-up regarding the Senate vote (that the pollster uses to identify soft or "persuadable" supporters of each candidate), a battery of five questions measuring whether various traits apply to Lieberman or Lamont, and a set of questions to gauge reactions to the recent campaing debate.   Finally, just before asking a series of demographic questions, the survey poses two negative arguments (or "messages") about Lamont.  As reported by the blog correspondent:

Do the following questions make you feel a little less, more much less comfortable with Ned Lamont:

He refuses to release his tax information. At this point, I told the pollster that the statement was incorrect, and that she was acting unethically by repeating it. She asked the question and I told her it made me feel much less comfortable with Joe Lieberman that people would be repeating such false information.

She went on to ask about how Ned Lamont's claim that he would outlaw all earmarks made me feel. I repeated that this was false information and it made me much less comfortable with Joe Lieberman. I urged her to stop repeating false information.

Note two things about these questions.   First, they come at the end of the survey, after questions that measure current vote preference or perception of the candidates.  This is the standard format commonly used by campaign pollsters, including yours truly. 

Second, consider the content of the questions. I certainly do not want to get into an argument about how fair or appropriate these charges may be, but both questions involve arguments that Joe Lieberman made openly in the Lamont-Lieberman debate.  Lieberman challenged Lamont to release his tax returns, and when Lamont did not answer directly, Lieberman concluded, "he is saying he will not release his returns."  According to the Stamford Advocate, however, the next day Lamont "changed his mind" and "decided to release his 2005 tax return 'upon filing.'"      

When asked by Lieberman during the debate whether he would support "earmarks that are good," Lamont replied: "I think we should outlaw these earmarks. I think they corrupt the political process. I think they are written by lobbyists and they're wrong."

Although the first round of reports on calls labeled as "push polls" did not have the same question-by-question specificity as the report from the My Left Nutmeg correspondent, most mention questions describing Lamont's wealth and background and claims that he voted with Republicans as a Greenwich Selectman.  Again, I will leave it to others to debate the accuracy of those claims, but they closely resemble arguments made by Lieberman in the debate an in his paid advertising

My point is that the "arguments" tested mirror the campaign rhetoric of the Lieberman campaign and appear designed to test reactions to that rhetoric.  As such, they deserve the same level of scrutiny as any charge or statement made in the political realm.  Blatantly untrue statements are unethical, whether part of a poll, a campaign mailer or a television ad.  But as one learns from following debates in the blogosphere, truth on such questions is often in the eye of the beholder.  Those on opposite sides of an issue have a way of reaching very different conclusions about the same set of objective "facts."   Such disagreements are often what politics is all about.  Negative rhetoric alone does not deserve to be labeled a "dirty trick," nor does the testing of such rhetoric constitute a "push poll."

Finally, a point of clarification:  I saw several comments in these reports speculating about a legal requirements for pollsters to identify themselves.  Federal does make it illegal to conduct fundraising or telemarketing under the guise of a survey, but as far as I know, no federal or state law requires survey researchers using live interviewers to identify themselves or their clients.  Automated calls appear to be an exception.  Also, most research firms consider it good practice to identify the name of the call center on request.  The ethical code "Respondent Bill of Rights" of the Council for Marketing and Opinion Research (CMOR) -- an organization that includes many of the large survey call centers -- obligates its members to recommends that its members identify the research company's name and the nature of the survey (but not the identity of the client) to respondents on request.

CORRECTION:  The "annonymous" commenter below is right, at least about Wisconsin.  Although I had checked on Friday, I was unaware of the Wisconsin law that obligates those who conduct surveys in that state on behalf of political campaigns to disclose who paid for the poll to the respondents on request.  I am also told that a similar law exists in Virginia, although I have not yet been able to locate the text of any such law. 

Further, as should be evident from the strike-thru corrections above, I misstated the nature of the CMOR Respondent Bill of Rights.  CMOR is not a standard setting organization (like AAPOR, MRA, ESOMAR or CASRO), and thus recommends, but does not require, that its members abide by the terms of the Respondent Bill of Rights.   

My apologies to all. 

Related Entries - Push "Polls"

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on July 14, 2006 at 05:06 PM in Push "Polls" | Permalink


Check out the Connecticut For Lieberman blog! It's a laugh riot.


Posted by: Edward | Jul 15, 2006 2:30:12 AM

Really informative post

Posted by: jr | Jul 15, 2006 4:37:38 PM

Nice post. I don't like Joe Lieberman or his positions, but I understand what you are saying. Politics is negative, so after the standard who are you voting for questions you ask questions to see how you can best change/cement that vote.


Posted by: Robert P | Jul 16, 2006 8:41:23 PM

"but as far as I know, no federal or state law requires survey researchers using live interviewers to identify themselves or their clients."

Better look up Wisconsin and Virginia...

Posted by: anonynmous | Jul 17, 2006 11:31:36 AM

Great post. I respect your views and look forward to your future work.

Posted by: Call Cruncher | Jul 17, 2006 4:14:32 PM

MP Said:
True "push polls," those that are aptly described as "the sleaziest of campaign tactics," typically involve untrue or outrageous attacks that the purveyors do not dare communicate openly.

But later you said: Lamont "changed his mind" and "decided to release his 2005 tax return 'upon filing.'"

Therefore it was untrue, and was not openly communicated, because Lieberman only openly communicated it BEFORE Lamont released the tax returns.

So as my reading of your post, it does meet your definition of push polling.

PS - Why doesn't 'blockquote' work?

Posted by: rob | Jul 18, 2006 10:40:46 AM

To Rob:

Not sure if saying "Yeah, I will release my 2005 returns upon filing' is the same as actually releasing them. If he hasn't given a hard date or given the hard data, then reasonable minds may differ on whether or not he is refusing to release the data, and therefore whether the question is in or out of bounds is very debatable.

Posted by: dave | Jul 18, 2006 12:08:26 PM

I live in Connecticut and have received a couple of survey phone calls but as a matter of practice, I will not answer polling questions unless the caller identifies his client, and in these cases they refused to do so, and so I declined to answer their questions.

Posted by: DBL | Jul 18, 2006 1:30:50 PM


The point isn't that these charges are true or untrue. The point is that a push poll is a very different thing than a regular benchmark poll. Push polls are tools to disseminate messages, just like TV ads, direct mail pieces and the like. The point is to communicate a message to influence a vote. As such they go out to far more people than a standard poll, and only consist of a few questions to hold costs down.

A "push poll" that included all of the questions Leiberman's poll included would be a lousy campaign tool, because it would cost about $10 per person reached. This compares to under a dollar per call for a standard campaign call. No campaign would do this, not because it's unethical, but becasue it's a stupid waste of resources.

Posted by: Dan | Jul 18, 2006 1:37:11 PM

My policy is to hang up when I receive unsolicited calls for whatever purpose. I violated my own policy one time when the caller managed to squeeze in that he was polling radio listening patterns. I told him that I would participate only for the reason that I don't listen to the radio!!

Posted by: noah | Jul 19, 2006 8:50:36 AM

Push-polling isn't some new or rare phenomenon. It's done almost daily by the MSM.

Posted by: TexasRainmaker | Jul 19, 2006 9:20:56 AM

As a CT voter, I got a very odd call a few weeks ago, which was definitely trying to influence me in the guise of a poll, but did not name a candidate.

The overt theme was if I was happy that "giant money-making corporations" or words to that effect, were not paying their "fair share" (definitely that phrase) of taxes, particularly in regard to paying for the internet, and if the internet should be supported exclusively by taxpayers, especially American ones.

There was also a secondary, more covert thrust that the internet should not be controlled by any one country, i.e. the US, but should be run by the United Nations or some equivalent internet administrator paid for by corporate taxes.

I have tried to see if any of the major CT Senate or House candidates have take up these positions actively, but have not noticed anything along these lines.

Any ideas?

Posted by: Joe Y | Jul 19, 2006 5:27:35 PM

I am sorry, but you do not get to define the term "push polls." The first time I heard of "push polls" was in the mid 1990s in Texas. The meaning of the term push polls at the time was that campaigns paid for polls that were unidentified (and presented as being non-paretisan), but that the poll questions were not primarily meant to get information, but to "push" the interviewee in one direction or another - hence the term "push polls." The fraud is not in the information, but in the misrepresentation of the motives of the caller (which psychologically is very important in terms of affecting the thinking of the call recipient). The first time I heard of push polls being used to spread false information was in the 2000 South Carolina campaign (I am sure it was done before) - but that is different from traditional "push polling." From a psychological perspective the traditional "push poll" is probably more effective than that Bush false information "push poll."

Your explanation of a push poll makes no sense when you consider that it is called a push poll. Don't make things up to protect your friends!!!!

Posted by: Wilbur | Jul 20, 2006 2:12:08 AM

The definition of push poll used in this article is the same as the one used by the American Association of Political Consultants
and the American Association For Public Opinion Research

The media and others often misuse use the phrase

Posted by: Leo Simonetta | Jul 20, 2006 9:35:02 AM

Please see this definition from the National Council on Public Polls (NCPP)


It is primarily a telemarketing technique, which can also spread disinformation - not a disinformation spreading technique. It seems political consultants have the same worth in this instance as everything else.

Posted by: Wilbur | Jul 20, 2006 8:19:04 PM

By the way, what is really frightening about this is how political consultants define deviancy downwards and allow people like Karl Rove set the bar on deviancy. Before South Carolina 2000 push polling was considered deviant and low form politics. Then Rove makes the horrific everyday and political consultants say the old telemarketing techniques of push polling aren't really push polling anymore, and therefore they are all right - now you have to spread vicious lies in your push polls to be deviant and be true "push polling." The is something really morally wrong with the current political consultant class IMO.

Posted by: Wilbur | Jul 20, 2006 8:26:59 PM

The National Council on Public Polls (NCPP) defintion is essentially the same as AAPOR's and AAPC's.

This is from the NCPP's definition:

"A "Push Poll" is a telemarketing technique in which telephone calls are used to canvass vast numbers of potential voters, feeding them false and damaging "information" about a candidate under the guise of taking a poll to see how this "information" effects voter preferences. In fact, the intent is to "push" the voters away from one candidate and toward the opposing candidate. This is clearly political telemarketing, using innuendo and, in many cases, clearly false information to influence voters; there is no intent to conduct research. "

From AAPOR's:

"A push poll is an insidious form of negative campaigning disguised as a political poll that is designed to change opinions, not measure them."


"Push polls typically “call” thousands of people. The people called are not a representative sample of voters. Instead, they’re people who are targeted because they’re thought to be undecided voters or supporters of a rival candidate."

And from the Political Consultants:

"In a true opinion survey, research firms interview on a small random sample of the population to be studied, typically ranging from up to a thousand interviews for a major statewide study to as few as 300 in a congressional district. With so-called "push-polls," the objective is to reach a very high percentage of the voters.

The interviews conducted by real polling firms generally range in length from at least five minutes for even the shortest of tracking questionnaires to more than 30 minutes for a major benchmark study. So-called "push-poll" interviews are typically designed to last 30 to 60 seconds."

It seeems to me that the key points are; many more people are called than would be called in a actual opinion survey, the survey is very short, the data is not collected or analyzed and the purpose is to convince not to measure intentions. It is essential a form of tele-marketng posing as an opinion survey.

Posted by: Leo Simonetta | Jul 21, 2006 11:29:21 AM

And...uhm...even with selective quotes what you wrote essentially agrees with what I said, don't you think? Polls presented as non-partisan but meant to push individuals that MIGHT also spread false information. They are short, but they also work better if people think they are legitimate. That is why the actual push poll can be placed at the end of what seems a legitimate poll. This was done in Texas in the 1990s all the time (look it up). This is what Lieberman did.

Posted by: Wilbur | Jul 21, 2006 7:48:04 PM

Lamont in fact did release his 2005 tax return. Therefore, that question is false and biased. Ergo... push poll. QED.

Posted by: | Jul 23, 2006 1:23:06 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.