A “push poll” is a form of interactive marketing in which political operatives try to sway voters to believe in certain policies or candidates under the guise of an opinion poll.
More akin to propaganda than an actual unbiased opinion survey, a push poll is most often used during a political campaign as part of a candidate’s election strategy or by a political party to gain advantage over a rival or rivals.
While push polls are not illegal, many consider them to be unethical, and they generally fall under the umbrella of “dirty” or “negative” campaigning. They often include personal attacks, fear mongering, innuendo, and other psychological tactics to lead those being polled to believe a specific point of view or turn against a specific candidate.
Most push polls are concise and to the point, so that a large number of people can be called in a relatively short period of time, so as to have a maximum effect on public opinion.
As noted by the New York Times, a large number of reputable associations have denounced push polling as a sleazy tactic, and in certain states push polling is regulated.
In fact, over the years, many jurisdictions have tried to enact legislation to control the use of push polls, but such laws have come up against opposition from those who swear by the practice. In 2012, a proposed “push poll law” in New Hampshire ran into head winds from pollsters concerned that such laws would “outlaw message testing, preventing firms from deploying legitimate survey research on behalf of their clients.”
In 2007, a Roll Call opinion piece suggested that the term itself is misleading, noting: “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.”
Richard Nixon was one of the pioneers of the push poll, and in his very first campaign in 1946, he used the practice by hiring operatives in his California district to call Democrats and warn them that his opponent was a “communist.”
Most agree that push polling is a negative tactic, but not all campaigns agree on when a survey is actually a true measure of political opinion, and when it is in fact a push poll.
During the 2000 Republican primaries, the campaign of John McCain accused the George W. Bush campaign of push polling in South Carolina by asking questions such whether you would be more likely to vote for or against McCain after learning that his “campaign finance proposals would give labor unions and the media a bigger influence on the outcome of elections.” The Bush camp denied that its survey was in fact a push poll. As described in Slate magazine: “This controversy, which has consumed the media for the past week, misses the point. Every campaign poll that asks about an opponent’s flaws is a push poll.”
This point of view was reiterated by a CBS News article 7 years later, when it was alleged that Mitt Romney’s campaign was a victim of push polling centering on his Mormon faith: “A push poll is political telemarketing masquerading as a poll. No one is really collecting information. No one will analyze the data.”