In their rush to promote a variety of election reform measures, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers late last week introduced a bill designed to prevent push polls.
But before the bill can advance, it may require some finessing between lawmakers and pollsters regarding the severity of the restrictions on the controversial polls — and a debate over whether the bill even goes far enough to curb the negative information that push polls disseminate.
“The problem is, how do you define a push poll?” said Joel Benenson, a New York-based Democratic pollster. “I think it’s an area that should be strongly regulated, but how are you going to differentiate a [legitimate poll] from a push poll?”
The Push Poll Disclosure Act, introduced by Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) last Thursday and now pending before the House Administration Committee, would require some pollsters in federal elections to disclose their identities to the survey respondents. Those conducting polls whose results are not being made public would be required to disclose the poll’s price tag and its sponsor to the Federal Election Commission.
The idea behind the bill is to make it easier for the FEC to police companies that are running push polls, which generally are designed to drive up a candidate’s negatives.
Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), Tim Holden (D-Pa.), Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and John Shimkus (R-Ill.) co-sponsored the bill.
For Fortenberry, recent outrage voiced by voters in his district and elsewhere who had received negative poll questions played a role in his decision to support the bill. Although the calls did not adversely affect his campaign, the experience left a sour taste in his mouth.
“This issue of push polling happens around the country,” Fortenberry said. “People are fed up with political chicanery.”
After the previous election, Fortenberry said he received several complaints from voters in his district who claimed they received anonymous phone calls that said “just awful things” about the two-term lawmaker.
“It didn’t affect us very much, but it was a factor,” Fortenberry said. “My motivation is about the larger issue.”
Although mainstream Republican and Democratic pollsters and lawmakers alike readily acknowledge something needs to be done to curb a practice one pollster called “insidious,” the bill’s author even concedes that the metrics involved are murky.
“There’s not a bright line in terms of the content and there probably isn’t with the numbers,” Petri said.
And the many shades of gray regarding what exactly defines a push poll is a primary concern of some pollsters. After all, one man’s legitimate telephone survey that asks tough questions about a candidate can be another’s push poll.
“I’ve done lots of [legitimate] polls where I’ve tested messages for and against my candidate, as well as for or against their opponent,” said one pollster who did not want to be named. “And I can’t tell the number of times a supporter has called the campaign and said ‘the other side is doing a push poll.’”
Another potential minefield in the debate over the bill likely will be the exact number of households a pollster may call while still remaining anonymous. While most agree 1,200 is sufficient, survey pools can run over. When they do, and polling firms are required to supply their names, their cover is blown — and so, too, may be the poll’s effectiveness.
“I’d want to be sure that [any final bill] would not clip legitimate survey research,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayers. “Once you disclose the sponsor of a legitimate survey, objectivity goes out the window.”
According to Ayers, certain polls may require samples of more than 1,200 households, such as state-specific surveys that, when combined, equal more than the restricted threshold.
“Most national polls do not have more than a 1,200 sample, but it’s entirely possible you could be doing 500 calls in each of five states,” Ayers said. “It’d be interesting to see if that would be one poll or five polls.”
Petri said he is interested in involving mainstream pollsters in the committee process to make sure restrictions do not cut into their firms’ bottom lines.
Still, he insisted that the idea of instituting criminal penalties for violators will not be up for debate.
“I’m not really interested in criminalizing the campaign process,” Petri said. “What I’m trying to do is have [firms] be responsible and accountable.”
But without the threat of being sent to federal prison, some pollsters say monetary fines by the FEC will become little more than the cost of doing business — a common criticism of the agency charged with policing and overseeing federal elections.
“I’m not sure if this bill is strict enough,” Benenson said. “It should be a felony if you misrepresent your entity as a polling firm and as conducting a survey, when in fact you’re conducting a push poll.”
He added: “Punish it strenuously, then people will think long and hard before they do it. There’s no legitimate pollster who would be afraid of any restriction as long as it protects legitimate polling.”