Don’t accuse people of push-polling

Readers with long memories will recall how crazy the Marty McFly character (played by Michael J. Fox) in the “Back to the Future” movies would get whenever anyone called him chicken, or even made a mocking clucking sound. He always overreacted, and most of the time got into more trouble than he started with. I’m similarly struggling to stay sane whenever I hear someone saying “push-poll” while looking at me. “No one calls me chicken,” McFly warned. “No one accuses me of push-polling,” I want to scream.

Twice in the past few weeks this has happened to me in California. In the latest instance, some flack for a Democrat running for attorney general said, “Republican Party push-polls like this must be taken with a heaping spoon of salt.” The poll he was referring to was conducted by me and bore not even a passing resemblance to anyone’s definition of push-polls. In the main, the poll consisted of name ID questions and ballots for all the statewide races. I suspect that the political hack (did I say flack earlier?) referring to this survey as a push-poll knew better, but he needed an instant retort, so he just spewed invective, like a frustrated and illiterate street punk responding with a barrage of profanity because he can’t think clearly enough to frame a logical response to a challenge.

The propagandistic use of the term “push-poll” has become epidemic. I recently spotted one commentator on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution website weave “push-poll” into a near-perfect execution of propaganda techniques. Commenting on a news analysis of Newt Gingrich, the critic complained that Newt glorified negative campaigning, “spewing seamless vitriol against opponents ... with his black political skulduggery dovetailing nicely with Karl Rove’s brilliant re-working of Goebbels, Stalin and Mussolini’s time-tested techniques, updated with tweaked and digitized Atwater push-poll exercises.” My, my. That little ditty uses multiple techniques recognized by the esteemed Institute for Propaganda Analysis in 1938. There’s “pinpointing the enemy,” “glittering generalities” and “card stacking,” at the very least. I also see appeals to prejudice, big lie, demonizing, labeling, name-calling, fear-mongering, scapegoating, transfer, oversimplification and all the other tawdry techniques of propagandists. And the ultimate exclamation point at the end of it all is push-polling. Perfect!

Google “push-poll” and you’ll see what I mean. The state of New Hampshire is investigating push-poll allegations. Virginia Republicans accuse Democrats of push-polling. A Democrat blogger in Minnesota claims to have been on the receiving end of the “mother of all push-polls.” Most of these claims don’t seem to be about genuine push-polls. Everyone is using the term to describe a poll that seems slanted, either in wording or results, for the other party or candidate. But almost no one who does that knows what he is talking about. Real push-polls have nothing to do with research. They never contain more than a few questions. And they are not directed at 400 to 800 respondents like most legitimate polls. Instead, they are directed at tens of thousands of households for the purpose of spreading negative information.

I don’t do push-polls. Never have. Never will. None of the other recognized Republican or Democrat pollsters I know will do push-polls either. Some may ask tough, hard-nosed push questions in a legitimate poll, but that doesn’t make for a push-poll. I don’t do push-polls because they violate the norms I subscribe to as a member of professional research organizations. And when people casually accuse me of doing push-polls, they recklessly disparage my professional standing. I take that seriously. Perhaps a pollster like me needs to push back in court.

David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.