What to do if you get push-polled or message-tested (2018 edition)

Revised from a Bleeding Heartland post first published ten years ago.

Republicans have polls in the field this week testing negative statements about Democrats and praise for their GOP opponents in targeted Iowa House races. Two years ago, similar surveys informed talking points used for Republican-funded direct mail or other kinds of advertising.

Activists often become angry when they hear biased or misleading claims about candidates they support. But if you want to help Democrats win elections, 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 the poll is asking skewed questions about your candidate.

Stay on the line and either start recording or grab a pen and paper.

Follow me after the jump for further instructions.


Most of the advice in this post applies to any kind of political call. But it’s important for voters to understand the difference between a genuine opinion poll and what is often called a “push-poll.”

Iowa voters who reliably participate in midterm elections will likely receive at least one political survey call before November. Campaigns, party organizations, or independent groups will commission polls about our toss-up races for governor and in the first and third Congressional districts. One central Iowa reader was recently a respondent for a detailed survey about State Auditor Mary Mosiman and her Democratic challenger Rob Sand.

Two to three months out, political surveys are designed to identify voter preferences and to gauge which statements about the contenders might affect voter choices. Closer to election day, brief robocalls to thousands of households (rather than a few hundred respondents) may spread false or misleading information designed to influence late deciders. As Stuart Rothenberg has argued, calling such “advocacy calls” a push-poll “does nothing but confuse two very different and totally unrelated uses of the telephone.”

Kathy Frankovic of CBS News explained the distinction in this useful article from 2007.

A push poll is political telemarketing masquerading as a poll. No one is really collecting information. No one will analyze the data. A push poll is very short, even too short. (It has to be very short to reach tens of thousands of potential voters, one by one). It does not include any demographic questions. And, of course, a push poll will contain negative information — sometimes truthful, sometimes not — about an opponent.

Push polls mislead the public, and not just about an opponent. They mislead the public about polls: Callers claim they are conducting a poll when all they are doing is spreading negative information.

[…] Not all questions that seem negative are part of push polls. Candidate organizations sometimes conduct polls with questions that contain negative information about opposing candidates. These polls, which are not push polls, are conducted for the same reasons market and advertising researchers do their work: to see what kinds of themes and packages move the public.

[…] These real polls are full-length, covering more topics than just some negative questions about an opponent. They include demographic questions that allow researchers to categorize respondents.

Last month, a reader in Polk County was a respondent for a phone poll about Representative David Young, who’s in a tough race for re-election in the third Congressional district. Her notes on the questionnaire:

1. How do you get your news?

2. Year of birth

3. Favorable/Unfavorable

a. Trump

b. John Earnest – I said never heard of him and just realized that the phoner misspoke and should have said Joni Ernst

c. David Young

4. Do you approve/disapprove of Trump’s administration? how do you feel about it? (strongly)

5. Do you approve/disapprove of Congress changing health care? how do you feel about it?

6. Do you remember how David Young voted on health care?

7. Do you approve of his vote on health care? how do you feel about it? (strongly)

8. Do you approve/disapprove of Congress and the Tax law last year? how do you feel about it? (strongly)

9. Do you remember how David Young voted on tax law?

10. Do you approve/disapprove of DY vote on the tax law? how do you feel about it?

11. Who did you vote for in 2016 – Trump or Clinton?

12. Party affiliation

13. Are you Hispanic?

14. Ethnicity?

Message-testing polls can be much more extensive than that. If a survey has a long questionnaire (taking more than five minutes to answer) and asks for your age, race, family income, or education level at the end, it’s certainly a real poll. Even if some of the questions seemed to unfairly smear your candidate, a long survey for data collection is by definition not a push-poll. Bleeding Heartland has often covered message-testing surveys about Iowa campaigns. For examples of how such polls are structured, click here, here, here, here, or here.

Contrast those surveys with push-polls I received shortly before the 2008 primary election. The short recorded messages existed only to discourage voters from supporting a Democratic candidate for the Iowa House. No one was collecting data about the respondents for future analysis.

Not all short surveys are push-polls. Campaigns or party organizations often commission voter ID calls, with just a few questions: are you registered to vote, are you likely are you to vote, which candidate would have your vote if the election were held today. It’s a quick way to code people as supporters, non-supporters or undecideds, for use in later GOTV efforts.


So, the phone rings and the voice on the other end (either a recording or a live interviewer) asks you to participate in a survey or promises to provide “important information.”

Hanging up won’t help your cause. Candidates need to know what the opposition may be planning to use against them, so they can prepare to respond to “hit pieces” in the mail or on the airwaves.

Ideally, you would want to record the survey. The easiest way is to put your phone on speaker and use another recording device. I have a small digital recorder; most cell phones or home computers have programs that will do the same job. I am not aware of a way to use a cell phone to record a call received on that phone.

If no recording device is handy, ask the person to hang on for a second while you grab a piece of paper and something to write with.

Take note of how the call began. Did the caller ask for you by name (indicating the polling firm is using a registered voter list), or for the head of the household (which could indicate a random digit dial sampling method)?

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 accurate. But try to exercise self-control. Whether it’s message-testing (like the surveys commissioned for Iowa House Republicans) or the most repulsive fake poll ever, your candidate will benefit from the most complete information you can provide.

Stay on the line until the very end. The final questions will reveal whether the poll is legitimately being used to collect data. Robocalls are required to provide a phone number at the end; write down the number, which may provide clues on who commissioned the survey. If you’re speaking to a live caller, insist that he or she give you a phone number.

I encourage Iowans to contact me by phone, e-mail, or through social media right away after receiving a political survey. When I receive notes on a poll or a recording, I never publish the respondent’s name or answers–only the question wording. Bleeding Heartland users are also welcome to write a guest commentary about any interesting call received about an Iowa race.

Get in touch with the targeted candidate or campaign manager. You can usually find a phone number or at least an e-mail address on the candidate’s website or Facebook page. Do not assume that they already know about these calls, especially if you were polled about a state legislative race. You are the best early warning system. Even if it’s just a harmless voter ID call, they will want to know it’s in the field.

Many activists post about political calls on their social media feeds. If you do so, it’s better not to jump to conclusions about who commissioned the call. Candidates do sometimes test negative messages about themselves. Also, a push-poll may originate from some advocacy group rather than from the opposing campaign or a party committee. 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).

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread, especially if you’ve answered a call this week about an Iowa House race.

UPDATE: On the evening of August 22 I was a respondent for a lengthy poll on the third Congressional district race. Many of the questions presented Democratic challenger Cindy Axne in an unflattering light, so I assume the firm doing the interviews (RTB Research) was hired by some Republican-aligned group. Although it’s possible David Young’s campaign commissioned the poll, I’m skeptical because they didn’t test a series of positive messages about Young. The last question, which I transcribed at the end of this post, referenced the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, allegedly by an immigrant who was not legally in the country.

Top image: Photo by Enoch Leung via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • This is very helpful

    Thank you. Until I started reading this blog, I had no idea that listening to political calls could provide useful info that could be passed on to candidates.