- Special Projects
Hi, my name is Mike and I’m calling from Civil Beat to ask you a few questions about public opinion surveys during campaign season.
Just kidding. This is a news story, not a telephone poll. But that seems like a good place to start with our lesson today.
You or someone you know might have already gotten a call from a pollster this year. Chances will only improve in the months between now and the August primary election and November general election. And even if you aren’t on the receiving end of a call, you’ll certainly be reading about what other people say when they pick up the phone.
Surveys are as much a part of contemporary elections as bunting and baby-kissing. But public understanding about how things work is lacking, as evidenced by the confusion — legitimate or faux, it’s not clear — by readers, political operatives and even candidates themselves over the rail-friendly, Cayetano-unfriendly poll results released by a construction union trade organization last month.
I wrote about the results in two places on Civil Beat the day the numbers were distributed: In a post titled “PRP Poll Shows Improved Numbers for Rail, Carlisle” in the Inside Honolulu blog and an article about the context for the poll titled “Pro-Rail Union Group Ups Ante Against Cayetano.” In the comments below those stories and subsequent blog posts as well as in private conversations and emails to me in recent months, the term “push poll” was tossed around liberally, and often incorrectly.
So I called three experts with Hawaii ties to help me explain what a “push poll” actually is and how savvy political observers should interpret the mountains of data sure to be thrown at them in coming months.
Matt Fitch is executive director of Merriman River Group, a full-service consulting organization specializing in election management, opinion research and communication that has consulted Civil Beat with our polling operation. Fitch said polls by media organizations tend to be the most “neutral” because “the intent is to provide an accurate story.”
The Civil Beat Poll drew criticism in March when a survey of likely Oahu voters found 34 percent supported the Honolulu rail project and 55 percent opposed it. That poll contained questions asking respondents to discuss their concerns about the rail project, and did not ask about the project’s alleged benefits.
Paid rail consultant and blogger Doug Carlson compared the survey to a “push poll” and dismissed the results.
But that poll, even if unbalanced, would seem to fall well short of a “push poll” by the standard definition of the term.
“It’s not always a clear distinction between a push poll and an honest poll,” retired University of Hawaii political science professor Neal Milner told me. “That’s not a distinction that works very well.”
Ben Tulchin, who conducted the survey for the Pacific Resource Partnership that drew the ire of Ben Cayetano, said calling a survey a “push poll” is “a standard knee-jerk response of a candidate who doesn’t like the poll results. It’s the standard line.”
Hot air aside, there are some common elements that make a push poll a push poll. Two of the key markers are timing and response rate.
“Typically (push) polls are done in the last week of a campaign with very large sample sizes,” Fitch said. “You’re not trying to be accurate. You’re trying to call everyone you can. That’s a push poll.
“It’s not really a poll at all. It’s a phone bank pretending to be a poll. You’re not doing it for research purposes, you’re doing it to maximize positive IDs. … It’s a GOTV (Get Out The Vote) message masquerading as a poll,” he said. “The definition of a push poll comes with the intent of methodology, not the message.”
But inflammatory and false content go a long way toward making a push poll.
Fitch and Tulchin each independently cited the classic example of the 2000 Republican presidential primary between George W. Bush and John McCain when South Carolina voters were called before the vote and told McCain had fathered an African-American child out of wedlock. In reality, McCain and his wife adopted their daughter from Bangladesh.
The McCain example might be the most blatant case, but there are many increments in the spectrum between it and a totally legitimate research tool.
When candidates or third-party organizations with a horse in the race do polling, they have a couple of goals in mind. One, they could be testing messages in anticipation of an ad buy. Why spend money on television, print or radio spots without knowing if they’ll be effective? Or two, they could be looking for a public relations bump by selectively releasing positive survey results.
Those types of surveys — and the PRP survey would seem to qualify on both counts — have certain elements of a push poll. Some questions might be loaded to elicit a preferred response, and some questions might contain negative information about a candidate to see if that information is important to voters.
Fitch said citizens should be wary of selectively released poll results like those from PRP but shouldn’t dismiss them out of hand.
“You have to understand that political campaigns, when they release results, are doing it for a reason,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the results aren’t true, it just means they’re releasing them for a reason, so you can’t always accept them at face value. They’re just doing their jobs.”
He said the key difference between polls that push and “push polls” is that legitimate surveys strive to be useful for research purposes.
“Where it is a useful research tool when you’re asking these positive and negative messages, you’re testing how voters respond,” he said. “Before you start pushing and pulling one way or the other, you ask the question what are you for, right up front. … After all the education is done, you see if you budged the numbers at all.”
“It can be a research tool even if you push and pull because you’re testing messages,” Fitch said.
Milner’s definition of a push poll is slightly more inclusive. He said a push poll “introduces an idea into the head of the respondent that wasn’t there before” and is “going to load the dice in the direction of being disapproving of a candidate.”
He said only the most “unsophisticated” push polls would be so blatant about starting a whisper campaign without even the guise of actual information gathering. Most push polls, he said, live somewhere in a gray area.
“What to one person is a push poll is to another person reflecting of an objective situation that is actually fair,” Milner said. “It’s not illegal. There’s not exactly a Better Business Bureau that you can call to find out if these guys have a bad record. It’s just like everything else. You have to separate the bullcrap from what you know to be the truth.”
Tulchin, the PRP pollster, is adamant that his survey was a legitimate scientific telephone survey. It sampled 800 likely voters on Oahu and all the claims it contained were backed up by media reports and facts, he said.
“As a pollster, it’s the methodology that makes the difference,” he said. “Our goal is to measure public opinion as exactly and as accurately as possible. … We do scientific surveys. This is a scientific survey, and that’s all I do. The typical response of a candidate who gets criticized or doesn’t like the results is that they call it a push poll.
“This is fundamentally not a push poll. We don’t do push polling. We gave information about all the candidates, not just Ben Cayetano. So it’s a balanced survey,” he said. “This isn’t a push poll. It’s the farthest thing from a push poll. … It’s a tactic that as a legitimate pollster, I just don’t do.”
Milner said reputable polling operations have mission statements declaring push polling unethical, because push polling makes the public “cynical” about public opinion surveys and less likely to respond when the phone rings.
But he says it’s incumbent on voters to ask who’s calling, research the companies doing the research, and listen for questions that don’t pass the “smell test.”
“Polls have an aura of legitimacy about them,” Milner said. “There just is no magic here. You have to think about it as political speech. And I don’t mean in a legal sense, but I mean in a cultural sense. … Just because it’s a poll doesn’t mean that you should accept.”