What is a push poll, and what is NOT a push poll?

About push polls


I’ve received several inquiries on whether or not a “push poll” was run in our local area this week.  While I have not polled in the area in question, the question does provide a teachable moment about push polls.

What is a Push Poll?

The American Association of for Public Opinion Research has a lengthy definition and lists characteristics of a push poll.

Here is the gist:

Here are characteristics that will usually indicate to a respondent that the call is not a legitimate survey.

  • One or only a few questions are asked, all about a single candidate or a single issue.
  • The questions are uniformly strongly negative (or sometimes uniformly positive) descriptions of the candidate or issue.
  • The organization conducting the calls is not named, or a phony name is used.
  • Evasive answers are given in response to requests for more information about the survey.

In addition, the following characteristics will indicate to journalists, reporters, and survey professionals that a telephone call is not a legitimate survey.

  • The number of people called is very large, sometimes many thousands.
  • The calls are not based on a random sample.
  • It is difficult to find out which organization conducted the interviews.

What is NOT a Push Poll?

A random sample poll testing negative statements is NOT a push poll.

Again, we look the AAPOR:

One way to tell is that message-testing surveys exhibit the characteristics of a legitimate survey, such as:

  • 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.

Conclusion about what is and is not a push poll

The Marketing Research Association (MRA), the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC), the American Association of Public Opinion Research and the entire survey and opinion research profession, oppose the practice of “push polling”.

However, and here is the gist:  Just because a pollster tests what you may perceive as a negative statement DOES NOT AUTOMATICALLY mean it is a push poll.  

As a pollster there are legitimate reasons to test negative messages.  As an example, sometimes we test negative messages to convince candidates or interest groups NOT to use the message.

The bottom line is: Please, before you accuse someone of unethical behavior or potentially a crime (in some states), you should know about the accusation you are leveling.  

About Alex Patton