What to do if you get push-polled or message-tested

cross-posted around the blogosphere

Two days before the June 3 Democratic primary in Iowa, I received an automated push-poll, followed the next day by a second robocall containing “important information” for me. Both calls were hit jobs on Jerry Sullivan, the leading Democratic candidate in Iowa House district 59.

Many of us will receive similar calls between now and November. We need to be prepared to help the Democrats who will be targeted in this way.

My number one piece of advice is do not hang up the phone.

Do not hang up the moment you hear an automated voice on the other end.

Do not hang up the moment you are asked to participate in a brief survey.

Do not hang up the moment you realize that this is not a legitimate opinion poll.

Stay on the line and grab a pen and paper for taking notes.

Follow me after the jump for further instructions.

Most of the advice in this diary applies to any kind of political call you may receive.

You may be a respondent in a genuine opinion poll commissioned by a campaign or a media organization. These surveys usually ask quite a few questions and will collect basic demographic information, such as your age, race, family income, or education level.

You may receive a voter ID call, which seems like a survey at first but only asks a few questions, including whom you will vote for in a specific race. Campaigns or state parties commission these fake polls as a quick way to code people as supporters, non-supporters or undecideds, for use in later GOTV efforts.

A message-testing poll is a survey used by a campaign or an interest group to find out which positive or negative points about a candidate are most salient for voters. These tend to ask a lot of questions, sometimes about more than one candidate. You might be asked for your opinion of various well-known politicians who are not currently running for office. You will be asked for basic demographic information that allows the pollster to analyze the results.

I was a respondent for a message-testing poll commissioned by Congressman Leonard Boswell’s campaign in January, and I wrote up that call based on my notes. Click that link to get a sense of how these surveys are structured. Like I said, they can be long. I was on the phone for more than a half-hour.

A push-poll is not truly a poll in that no one is collecting data for analysis. The only purpose is to get negative information about a candidate out to voters without leaving a rival campaign’s fingerprints. So, a push-poll will usually ask only a few questions and won’t ask for your demographic information. Also, a push-poll may go out to thousands of people, while a real poll will usually have fewer than a thousand respondents.

For a longer explanation of the difference between genuine opinion polls and push-polls, read this post by Mark Blumenthal, the “mystery pollster,” or this post by Stu Rothenberg (who prefers the term “advocacy call” to “push-poll”).

Back to the main subject of this diary: what you should do if you pick up the phone and are asked to participate in a survey, or are told that the caller has “important information” for you.

Hanging up won’t help your candidate. Your candidate needs to know about anything out in the field.

As soon as you grab something to write with, take note of how the call began. Did the caller ask for you by name, or for the head of the household?

If the caller gives a company name such as “Survey 2000” or “Central Research,” write that down. If it’s a live caller, ask the person to repeat the name of the firm and spell it if necessary so that you get it right.

Take notes on everything you hear. If it’s a robocall, the words will go by fast, but do the best you can. Don’t be shy about asking a live caller to repeat questions or statements. Not only will that help you take more accurate notes, it will also force the caller to waste more time on you, instead of someone who might be influenced by the message.

Your instinct may be to show your disgust if you hear something that isn’t fair or true. But you need to exercise self-control and not hang up like this person did after receiving a message-testing poll commissioned by the Clinton campaign in Iowa last summer.

Whether it’s genuine message-testing or the most repulsive “advocacy call” ever, your candidate’s campaign will benefit from the most complete information you can provide.

Try to record the wording of the questions or statements as accurately as you can, so you can determine later whether the call was pushing a demonstrably false line or simply a misleading one. For instance, the robocalls I got earlier this month said Jerry Sullivan was “believed to be” opposed to a woman’s right to choose. Since Sullivan is pro-choice, there is no basis for that belief, but the careful wording avoided any outright lie. His campaign manager and I figure that whoever commissioned the calls was counting on listeners to draw conclusions from the candidate’s Irish name.

Stay on the line until the very end of the call, so that you can write down the phone number that the law requires robocalls to provide. If you’re speaking to a live caller, insist that he or she give you a phone number.

As soon as you can after getting the call, contact the campaign of the targeted candidate and ask to speak to the campaign manager. You can usually find a phone number or at least an e-mail address on the candidate’s website (which you can find by googling the candidate’s name).

Do not assume that the campaign already knows about these calls, especially if this is happening in a state legislative district. You are the best early warning system. Even if it’s just a harmless voter ID call, they will want to know that it’s in the field.

If it’s a message-testing poll or a push-poll, they will be grateful for the specific information you can provide about the issues being highlighted. In effect, you are giving them a preview of attack ads that may be coming down the pike, so they can start preparing a response.

Next, I encourage you to write up the call and post a diary about it on your state’s community blog for Democrats. You can find links to members of the 50-state blog network on national sites such as MyDD and Open Left. You should be active on blogs in your state if you’re not already, whether or not you have breaking news to report.

When you write your diary, do not jump to conclusions about who commissioned the call you received. Last year some bloggers asserted that Barack Obama’s campaign was behind a push-poll I received against Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, but that scenario never seemed likely to me.

This month a neighbor called me after getting the same robocalls against Jerry Sullivan, and she blamed his opponent in the Democratic primary. Sullivan’s campaign manager and I think there is no way that candidate had the means to arrange those calls. The content of the calls hinted at the involvement of some Republican-aligned interest group, and it seems likely that they were hoping to weaken or defeat the person perceived to be the stronger general-election opponent. (By the way, Sullivan won the June 3 primary with nearly 80 percent of the vote.)

In general, a sleazy robocall is more likely to be funded by an outside interest group than by the rival candidate. You will have more credibility if you stick to what you know about the source of the call based on your notes (the name of the firm, the phone number given at the end of the call, the kind of information disseminated).

Don’t forget to cross-post your diary on several national blogs if the target is Obama or a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House or Senate.

If the call was clearly deceptive or inappropriate in some other way, you may consider contacting political reporters for your local television and radio stations as well as any newspapers in your district. They will appreciate the news tip, especially if you explain that you took notes during the call and have details such as the firm’s phone number. This could be a way to turn the tables on the candidate the push-poll was designed to benefit.

The danger here is that inviting media coverage of a smear may inadvertently plant the falsehood more firmly in voters’ minds. After reading this excellent diary by mindgeek (the neurologist Sam Wang) on “The neuroscience of false beliefs,” I will think twice before I call any journalists about an advocacy call.

The potential benefit of putting the Republican candidate on the defensive has to be weighed against the risk of amplifying misleading information about the Democrat.

Thanks for reading. I look forward to your comments, especially if you are experienced in campaign work, polling or political communication.

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