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push poll

noun [countable]

an opinion poll (= an attempt to find out what people think about a subject by asking them questions about it) whose real purpose is to influence people's opinions rather than to collect information about them

push polling

noun [uncountable]

'A Bedford resident complained to the state attorney general's office about a campaign telephone poll from Hawkins that was critical of Sanborn. Sanborn called such push polls a "dirty way" to get elected.'

Concord Monitor 11th September 2012

'The technique of push polling is part of the election battle being fought on the ground in the swing states where the margins of victory have been narrow in past elections.'

The Guardian 3rd October 2008

With the US presidential election now only weeks away, supporters of particular candidates are becoming increasingly zealous in their attempts to influence the outcome of the vote. Among the range of tactics employed in an effort to convince potential voters that their man (or woman) is the one to go for, is the push poll – political advertising in a cunning disguise.

the essential difference between a push poll and a valid opinion poll, is that the latter merely attempts to elicit opinions, whilst the former aims to change and influence them

In essence, a push poll is something approaching a smear campaign (= an attempt to damage someone's reputation by giving false information about them) masquerading as an opinion poll (= a survey used to gather information about general opinions on a particular topic). A push poll typically involves phoning very large numbers of voters and, in the guise of doing a survey to find out how certain pieces of 'information' may affect their voting preferences, feeding them false or damaging information about a particular candidate. The idea then is to 'push' them away from any rival candidate and steer them towards the candidate that the caller supports. Crucially then, the essential difference between a push poll and a valid opinion poll, is that the latter merely attempts to elicit opinions, whilst the former aims to change and influence them. In a push poll, large numbers of respondents are contacted, but little or no effort is made to collect and analyze response data because no-one is really interested in this information once the phone call is over, the main aim having been to negatively influence the targeted candidate.

The derived term push polling is sometimes used to refer to this as a technique, and one of the most notorious implementations of it occurred in the US Republican Primaries of 2000 (in the USA, the Primaries are the selection process by which voters within a particular party choose its presidential candidate). Allegedly, supporters of George W. Bush used push polling to sabotage the campaign of rival John McCain, reportedly asking if voters were more or less likely to vote for McCain if they had known that he had fathered an illegitimate (black) child. In the 2008 presidential election, some Jewish voters were targeted by a push poll attempting to damage Barack Obama by false accusations of a link to the Palestinian Liberation Organization. As we speak, allegations of push polls are rife as campaigns for candidates in the 2012 presidential election enter their final phase.

Background – push poll

The expression push poll first emerged in the mid-nineties in the USA, and is mainly associated with US politics, though there's some more recent evidence for its use in Australia. The technique's origins are often linked to the aggressive tactics associated with the late Lee Atwater, an American political consultant and strategist to the Republican Party.

The word poll dates right back to Middle English, when it originally meant 'head', and later, by extension, 'an individual person among a number'. This in turn developed into the sense of 'the number of people determined by counting of heads', which by the 17th century had morphed into simply 'the counting of heads or votes'.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 15th October 2012.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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