“Push Polling” is a political technique that is used to deceptively influence the responses and opinions of those participating in polls.
Under the guise of legitimate polling, the responses are of little consequence, nor are they used for any analytical or evaluation purposes, but rather an attempt to persuade (or “push”) the respondent into thinking about a particular issue or candidate in a predetermined way.
Lee Atwater – a Republican political consultant and former advisor to Reagan and Bush 41 – is considered the father of push polling…and later adopted by the likes of Karl Rove.
Push Polling was most famously employed in the South Carolina primary during the 2000 Presidential campaign, against John McCain, when he and George W. Bush were the leading contenders for the Republican nomination. A win in S. Carolina (an early state in the GOP primaries) would help to catapult its winner as the likely nominee.
- (Fun Fact: Since 1980, when SC moved from a caucus to a primary, the winner has always gone on to win the GOP nomination)
Robo-calls initiated by the Bush camp asked respondents:
“Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”
There was no truth to this statement, however that is of little concern to those conducting the poll. The intention was to plant the seed and make people think it was true…not dissimilar to courtroom dramas where a particularly pointed question at a defendant is stricken from the record (“You wanted your wife dead for the insurance money, didn’t you?!”)…the fact that it was stricken matters not, the jury still heard it and is now considering it.
This claim was particularly vicious, since McCain was campaigning with his adopted Bangladeshi daughter, Bridget. The sight of the little dark skinned girl made the seed planted earlier grow and John McCain lost South Carolina, effectively ending his run for the presidency.
This technique continues to be used today…because it works.
“If you knew Candidate Jones was under investigation for tax evasion and fraud, would you be more likely or less likely to vote for them?”
Nowhere in this example question does it state whether an actual investigation has been launched. Rather the intent is to imply that there is one, despite whether or not Candidate Jones has ever had any issues with their taxes.
“If you were made aware that President Obama was secretly trying to push legislation that would ban all hand-guns and firearms, would this give you a more favorable or less favorable opinion of him?”
Although President Obama has never made a statement about increasing gun regulation or trying to take people’s guns away, this sample question intentionally preys on the fears of certain people, in certain areas of the country, that is intended to compound a predisposed perception that they may have about the President’s political party.
Lee Atwater surmised that the majority of the American public is ill-informed and easily manipulated into thinking a certain way if you cater to particular prejudices, fears and thinking about issues that are prevalent in certain states. For instance, the “black baby” push poll might not have been as effective in more progressive states…but was just the right tone for prejudices that exist in South Carolina; same as questions about religion and/or gay marriage.
Through push polling, it didn’t matter if what you were asking was true…all that mattered was that the respondent thinks it’s true and that you introduced a particular thought, idea or perception in the minds of those responding to the question. According to Atwater, it is unlikely that the respondent will seek out whether the information is true, and as a result, you have now controlled the perception of your opponent.
Push Polling is only illegal in New Hampshire.
In order to counter push polls, many states require that the poll / call must clearly identify whether you are for or against a particular candidate, in addition to who is paying for the poll, in an attempt to impose accountability.
However, there are ways around this. As most campaigns and candidates do not want to be directly associated with push polling, they will have an outside consultant hire a firm to conduct the poll, so that it cannot be traced directly as being approved or initiated by a candidate themselves or their campaign.
Push Polling is a highly unethical practice, as its intent is to mislead and outright lie about a candidate or issue, in order to control its perception in the minds of people unlikely to question its validity.
* “Understanding Politics” is a series intended to inform and educate people on everything from basic civics, to political terminology, procedures and/or tactics. The purpose is to help others identify, understand and ‘read between’ the political lines.