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Push Polling: Garbage in, Garbage Out

5 years ago
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There is little in the cynical world of politics that is more cynical than push polling, the dark art and warped science of using a phony survey (over the phone or through the mail) that disseminates false or negative information about a candidate or cause. The most famous push poll, it is said, came during the Republican presidential primary season of 2000 when supporters of future-president George W. Bush's campaign initiated a telephone push-poll campaign against rival John McCain, which included the false allegation that he had fathered an illegitimate black child. McCain reportedly (and understandably) still hasn't gotten over such a low deed.
Are you in favor of making congressional Democrats' blind allegiance to Barack Obama's radical liberal agenda a major campaign issue in 2010?

Push polls are an insult to the people who are subjected to them -- and purposely so. Party officials, or unhinged third party organizations, callously say through them to the target reader or listener: We don't believe you are smart enough to sort through the nuance and details of modern government. We don't believe you are capable of paying attention to legitimate arguments, let alone conflicting ones. So we are going to throw a comic book at you filled with lies, exaggerations and disingenuousness. We want you to believe that the facts contained in its pages are all true. We want to trick you without you ever realizing that you've been tricked.
Do you agree with Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi's efforts to impose massive tax hikes on the American people?
As is always the case with a hapless mark who is the victim of fraud, the reader or listener who is the target of push polling perceives the scam quite differently than does its perpetrator. The pollster hopes that the reader subconsciously absorbs the biases and prejudices and distortions contained in the poll questions. The reader takes those questions as a sign of respect: of course you know that the president beats his wife, everybody does, which is why we are using the information in our poll, so it's legitimate for us to ask whether he should stop doing so. We presume you know from your own careful studies on the topic that the Congress is full of socialists, so it's perfectly natural for us to ask if you want to continue to have socialists ruling the national legislature.
Do you support giving captured foreign terrorists full judicial privileges and rights that are granted to U.S. citizens?
The target of the push poll might want to feel "in" on the information and might be impressed with all the (bogus) presumptions contained in the questions. The pollsters, remember, aren't aiming for the politically attentive and the ideologically practical or the local statesman and diplomat. They are aiming for people who, for whatever reason, will not or do not or cannot spend the time they need to be skeptical of all hyperbole and demagoguery, no matter from which sleazy operatives it comes. This is not just a Republican sin; it's a bipartisan one.
Do you believe that this nation's Founding Fathers intended for the federal government to micro-manage state and local functions such as healthcare, child care, and unemployment assistance?
No one wants to think of themselves as dumb. No one wants to admit they don't know much about weighty matters of state. So the details in the questions serve to bolster the confidence of the target. They have just asked me these serious and alarming questions, the target says, because they consider me to be smart, someone whose opinion they clearly value. They must know what they are talking about, and the gist of the questions must be true, because who in the world who want to waste their time asking phony questions?
Do you support the Democrats' efforts to create a massive new federal government bureaucracy that would be run by unionized government employees and would have complete control of your healthcare costs and choices?
The italicized questions above and below are from a Republican National Committee mass mailing I received Tuesday. It's yet another in a series of conservative push polls. Michael Steele evidently wants my "immediate input" to help the Republicans take back the Congress in 2010. And the RNC chairman doesn't just want my money and my vote next November. He wants my time and attention, too. The "2010 Congressional District Survey" explains: "The answers you provide on your Survey will be shared with our national, state and local party leaders and candidates to show them that our grassroots base is strong, organized and working together as a team to prepare for 2010."
Do you believe that American business and industry will be able to compete in the world economy if the Obama Administration bends to pressure from radical environmentalists and implements draconian regulations on emissions, energy consumption and transportation beyond what is required in other industrialized countries?
Yet the questions contained on the form are so grotesquely inaccurate, and thus bear such little resemblance to political or historical reality, that they surely cannot legitimately generate any sort of meaningful statistics for the RNC. The fairy tale world of the push poll precludes the value of its own conclusions. The RNC knows this. The pollsters know it. No one cares what the answers are. Once the target reads the push poll the deed is done; the damage to the opposing cause secured. A donation is beside the point. Not only have the pollsters taken a masked shot at creating or energizing a partisan, they also get the rebound effect once the target begins to "share" the polling questions with friends and family.
Do you agree that President Obama and Democrats in Congress seem more concerned about passing their liberal pet-programs than creating jobs and getting the economy going?

Chances are you, too, will get a push poll between now and the November election. Whether it comes from Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals, do the right thing. Blow off the people who think you are stupid, throw away the packet of lies they send, and do the long, hard work of understanding for yourself where the shades of gray exist in the policy debates that rage around you. The truth about all of the topics here is complicated. It can't be explained in a few words. But the long, messy version of it is still better to hear than the lies offered by political consultants and operatives who are hoping you aren't smart enough to know the difference.

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