Monday, September 15, 2008

Push Polling Is Back

As if there weren't enough reasons to vote against the Republicans this year, another of Karl Rove's favorite strategies, the push poll, has apparently been revived. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a push poll uses questions designed to elicit a particular response -- usually a very strong negative response. In addition, the real threat from push polls comes from the often completely fabricated information that is at the core of the "question". The goal of the push poll is not to determine what voters think; rather, the push poll is designed to put "bad" information in front of the voter to scare that voter away from a particular candidate. As defined by SourceWatch:
A push poll is where, using the guise of opinion polling, disinformation about a candidate or issue is planted in the minds of those being 'surveyed'. Push-polls are designed to shape, rather than measure, public opinion.

Case in point? According to Crooks & Liars (and repeated elsewhere on the web today), Jews in Florida are receiving phone calls from a pollster. They are asked if they are Jewish, if they are religious, and if their "opinion of Barack Obama would change if [they] knew that Obama had given lots and lots of money to the PLO". Sen. Obama has not, of course, given money to the PLO. But the intended effect of the "question" is to mislead voters into thinking that Sen. Obama had done just that. If enough Jewish voters can be scared into thinking that Sen. Obama supports terrorists (or, perhaps more simply, would not be a strong supporter of Israel), then those voters can (so the theory goes) be swayed not to vote for Sen. Obama. If a voter elects not to support Sen. Obama because they have genuine concerns about his support for Israel (or any other issue), that is fine; but when those concerns are based on false information disseminated solely to create false concerns... Houston, we have a problem.

These same sorts of smear tactics were used by then-Gov. George W. Bush against Sen. McCain in the 2000 primaries. Voters were asked if they would be less likely to vote for Sen. McCain if they knew that he'd fathered an illegitimate black daughter. Sen. McCain has an adopted daughter from Bangladesh. The point is, it didn't matter that the "fact" in the question was false; what mattered was that the question went to the heart of racial politics to turn voters against Sen. McCain. And it worked.

These tactics represent the absolute worst in American politics and are a real danger to our system. The use of push polling can serve to cripple a voter's basic trust in their candidate, without allowing nasty details like truth or issues to intervene. No matter which candidate you support, you should be outraged by these sorts of tactics. We should choose our elected leaders on the basis of their proposed policies, not on the basis of fraudulent fears.

One more thing, that I couldn't pass up. While I was looking for some examples uses of push polls in previous elections, I found this great example of what the most egregious sort of push poll might look like:
If you knew that bleeding-heart liberal senator John Kerry regularly had sex with an underage Muslim male terrorist, would you (A.) Feel it was a private matter between Kerry and the terrorist? (B) Have no opinion, one way, or another? (C.) Feel President Bush should stay the course in his honorable struggle against the terrorists who want to destroy America and their immoral, America-hating Democratic supporters?

While I find the example humorous, it is, unfortunately, not too far removed from what real push polling looks like.

Finally, it is worth noting that push polling (or pre-determinative polling) is not limited to Presidential elections or even to elections in general. I've seen numerous mailings from state and local office holders asking my opinions on certain matters in which the elected official has written the question with a predetermined outcome in mind. A terrific example of this sort of pre-determinative polling can be found on the website of the National Republican Congressional Committee. I think that my personal favorite is question 5 ("Do you think that House Republicans should continue to push for pro-growth policies that create jobs and oppose tax increases that would add a burden to working families and set back our economy?") but I will acknowledge that question 12 ("Do you agree that winning back a Republican Majority in the House of Representatives is essential to stopping the Nancy Pelosi Democrats from raising our taxes, destroying our economy and endangering our homeland?") has a certain scandalous appeal. Nothing like clean, unbiased questions designed to truly gauge support for or against a proposed policy. Unfortunately, in the case of pre-determinative questionnaires like this, the party promulgating the poll will use the "statistics" to back up their proposed policies but will usually rephrase the question to become much more innocuous and neutral.

If you receive a push poll, tell the pollster where to put it. Don't be gentle; after all, the use of push polling is a true threat to our democratic process. Then call the campaign for whom the pollster was probably working and tell them that you don't approve of those sorts of election tactics. Perhaps the campaigns will begin to listen if enough voters cry foul.

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