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Representative Denny Hoskins (r – noun, verb, CPA) issued his latest legislative update video (something that Fired Up! has been reveling in) and in it he took time to lament being the target of an [our word] “alleged” push poll:

…one of the other things that we’ve had a lot of, um, ethics bills in, in the Ethics Committee and Government Accountability Committee this week. Um, with one of the things that I’ve think we should propose is a legislation on, um, ethical push polling. Recently in my home district this week the Democrats launched a push poll. And what a push poll is, uh, I’ve had several constituents call and, uh, tell me about the push poll as far as what they ask is, yes, would you vote to re-elect Representative Hoskins, and when my constituents ask yes, they provide, uh, some false and misleading and untrue statements about myself or my family. And then after they provide that information then they say, well, would you still vote for Representative Hoskins knowing these other things that we’ve told you. When several of my constituents asked who was paying for the poll, uh, the polling company, uh, did not, would not disclose that. And I think that that’s something, and, you know, ethically that our voters and constituents should know who is paying for the polling and so they can determine themselves if it’s a biased poll or not…

Representative Hoskins also put the same story in the written version of his January 28, 2010 “Capitol Report”:

….The House Committee on Governmental Accountability and Ethics Reform met again this week to hear testimony on several ethics reform bills.  One ethical reform the legislature should address is proper disclosure for campaign rhetoric. I was the subject of a prime example of campaign rhetoric just this week.  Disguised as a “survey,” a company called Liberty Polling conducted a biased telephone “push-poll” in my district. When asked who paid for the “survey,” Liberty Polling would not answer the question.  The issue here is not that there was a poll, but that it was veiled and not actually a survey at all.  In the name of good ethics and transparency, whoever is paying for the “survey” should be disclosed, especially when the recipient of the call requests that information.  I appreciated hearing from a number of constituents that you did not welcome this call. I won’t commit space here to go into details about what I was told about the calls, but I’d be happy to discuss it further if you would like….

This is amusing on so many levels. There’s the republican propensity to join the “cult of the victim.” And there’s the “isn’t that mean when they say something untrue about me”, but it’s okay when the republicans demonstrably do that to somebody else on your behalf. And, finally, there’s the basic misunderstanding of polling.

The American Association for Public Opinion Research has a lot of useful information on polling practices:

Fraudulent Polls  vs. Message Testing

The fact that a poll contains negative information about one or more candidates does NOT in and of itself make it a ‘push poll.’ Political campaigns routinely sponsor legitimate “message-testing” surveys that are used by campaign consultants to test out the effectiveness of various possible campaign messages or campaign ad content, often including negative messages. Political message-testing surveys may sometimes be confused with fake polling, but they are very different. One way to tell is that message-testing surveys exhibit the characteristics of a legitimate survey, such as:

At the beginning of the call, the interviewer clearly identifies the call center actually making the calls. (However, legitimate political polling firms will often choose not to identify the client who is sponsoring the research, be it a candidate or a political party, since that could bias the survey results.)

The interview contains more than a few questions.

The questions usually ask about more than one candidate or mention both sides of an issue.

Questions, usually near the end of the interview, ask respondents to report demographic characteristics such as age, education level, and party identification.

The survey is based on a random sample of voters.

The number of respondents falls within the range of legitimate surveys, typically between 400 and 1500 interviews.

AAPOR stresses that these criteria apply most of the time, but exceptions will arise. Journalists and members of the public are encouraged to investigate allegations of “push polling” to ascertain whether or not the calling activity was carried out for legitimate research purposes….

….Issues in Message Testing

Despite their legitimacy of purpose, message-testing surveys occasionally generate vigorous complaint. They are sometimes the subject of public controversy in political campaigns, and may appear in press stories about dubious campaign practices. AAPOR recognizes that message tests may need to communicate positive or negative information in strongly political terms, in a tone similar to campaign advertisements. Still, these surveys should be judged by the same ethical standards as any other poll of the public: Do they include any false or misleading statements? Do they treat the respondent with fairness and respect…?

[emphasis added]

People are caught off guard when they get a random sample poll, because, well, they were selected at random. The odds of any one person getting called are pretty steep and so most people who are called don’t tend to record the actual conversation with the poll interviewer (as if they’re sitting around waiting with a recording device or pencil and paper). And since it can be a unique experience (that random sample thing again) people who are called might not get all of the details of the conversation committed to memory, especially if they aren’t very aware of what to look for (see the AAPOR information above).

Absent a recording of an interview I’m not willing to call anything a “push poll.” In the past I’ve seen legitimate polls (I was interviewed for one) with candidate contrast questions characterized as a “push poll” in the local paper by a few outraged recipients. Testing the unpleasant (to the individual) facts in a candidate’s or politician’s record does not necessarily make that phone call part of a “push poll.”

It is not a given that Democrats, as Representative Hoskins stated in his video, sponsored the poll. It’s entirely possible that republicans, worried about Denny Hoskins’ numerous missteps are testing his (and their) vulnerability. Now that’s a possibility that should really make him nervous. If it were an independent republican expenditure Denny Hoskins wouldn’t have been told about it.