Push Polls

Sometimes questionnaires are thinly disguised attempts to sway the opinion of the people who are being questioned. These are called "push polls." In a push poll, people may be asked questions which introduce damaging information about an opposing candidate. For example, "Do you approve of the fact that Candidate X voted to increase taxes 20 times during the past two decades?" or "How important is it to you that Candidate Y fired a secretary for taking two days off when she had a baby?" The objective of this poll is not to gather data, but to influence voters.

What is a push poll? Why are questionnaires that turn out to be fund-raising letters "useless" from a scientific perspective?

Similar to the push poll is the questionnaire that turns out to be a fund raising letter. Usually the letter has a message on the outside such as "You have been selected to participate in an important national survey." Open the letter and you find a questionnaire. The questions present a definite point of view, and at the end, one is invited to send money and/or join the organization. Such polls are useless for providing scientific data, for at least two reasons. First, the sample is not randomly chosen from any larger population. Second, answers are likely to be influenced by the obvious agenda of the organization conducting the poll. Such meaningless "surveys" are conducted in order to raise money and increase membership in organizations, and this is done in the U.S. by groups as diverse as the National Rifle Organization and the Carl Sagan Foundation.

Push polls are becoming very common during U.S. political campaigns. During the last one, I must have received over 20 telephone calls in the two months before the election, each pretending to ask how I felt about political issues. In each case, the questions eventually revealed a clear preference for one candidate, as I was asked if I knew about this candidates heroic exploits or that candidates bad deeds. Soon I stopped agreeing to participate in telephone polls.

What happens when people get disgusted, or catch on to the intentional deceptions, and simply refuse to participate in any telephone polls at all? Seemingly that will create a bias of its own, removing certain types of people (the skeptical? the suspicious? the well informed?) from the pool of individuals accessible to reputable and unbiased polltakers. However, telephone polling may already be hopelessly distorted by the existence of cell phones and unlisted numbers. No longer can a polltaker assume that calling a random set of numbers from a telephone directory will result in anything like a random sample of the citizenry. The great era of telephone polls may be past, leaving nothing but unscientific call-in telephone polls and equally meaningless push polls.

Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey