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More on Message Testing and "Push Polls"

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I had been meaning to write about two new reports of unusually ugly "message testing" polls that have popped up in recent days. As usual, journalists who should know better have reached for the "push poll" label, which is not quite right. These calls do not appear to fall into that category, though as in previous cases, the surveys are pretty ugly nonetheless.

Last week, Marc Ambinder reported on calls received in Ohio and Michigan from the Opinion Access Corporation that tested negative statements about the radical views of Obama's "spiritual advisor" and presumably slanted renderings of some of Obama's votes as State Senator. A DailyKos reader named RachelMo reported receiving the same call.

This week, Jonathan Cohn details of a survey call he received apparently aimed at Jewish voters that included a laundry list of incendiary statements involving Obama and Israel. Separately, Ben Smith reported on very similar sounding calls received by Jewish voters in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

From what I can tell, all of these calls involved live interviewers and long interviews asking a variety of questions, including standard favorable ratings, issue questions and demographic items, as well as the battery that asked for reactions to the negative statements about Barack Obama. As such, they sound more like "message testing" -- albeit very ugy message testing -- than traditional "push polls."

Some background: A true "push poll" is not a poll at all, but usually a very brief call -- the modern version is typically recorded and automated -- that isn't intended to measure anything. Instead, the purpose is to communicate a (usually) scurrilous message to as many voters as possible. Real push polls are very short and aim to reach tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands or even millions of voters. These calls are dressed up to sound like a poll in order to (a) fool the recipients into listening and (b) add credibility to the ugly messages they contain.

Message testing is different, though those differences may seem semantic to the casual observer. Virtually all campaigns ask message testing questions on their benchmark surveys. Sometimes the messages tested are positive, sometimes negative. Some pollsters will repeat their vote preference question after testing messages, because they want to see whether their message will change opinion and, if so, with what voters. In that context, they are interested in how much they can "push" opinions, but as market research for paid ads, direct mail and the campaign messages.

Most of the time the messages tested -- positive and negative -- will tend to mirror the heated, one-sided rhetoric that we hear from candidates and their campaigns every day. Sometimes, however, the messages are extreme and offensive to those on the receiving end of the call, as was the case with the two latest poll stories.

The brain-dead way to approach these stories is to argue over whether the calls amount to a "push poll." As a campaign pollster, I helped design hundreds of surveys with similar tests of messages. So trust me when I say that all campaigns -- including the Obama campaign -- test positive and negative messages in their surveys. As I've written many times before, conducting a message testing poll does not absolve the pollster and the campaign from ethical obligations. The issue is not whether the pollster is trying to "push" the opinions, but whether they are telling the truth and treating their respondents with fairness and respect.

They way I wish reporters would approach these stories is to focus less on the "is-this-a-push-poll" angle and more on evaluating and debunking the charges they include.

See more of our past coverage of push polls and message testing, Stu Rothenberg's must read on the subject and the statement from the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR).

Update - Ben Smith reports on the sponsor of the survey of Jewish voters:

A Republican group is taking responsibility for a poll that has roiled the Jewish community by asking sharply negative questions about Senator Barack Obama.

The Republican Jewish Coalition, which is launching a campaign against Obama on behalf of Senator John McCain, sponsored the poll to "understand why Barack Obama continues to have a problem among Jewish voters," the group's executive director, Matt Brooks, told Politico.

The poll asked voters their response to negative statements about Obama, including reported praise for him from a leader of the Palestinian terror group Hamas and a friendship early in his career with a pro-Palestinian university professor. Some Jewish Democrats who received the poll - including a New Republic writer who lives in Michigan - were outraged by the poll, describing it in interviews as "ugly" and disturbing. A group that supports Obama, the Jewish Council for Education and Research even staged a protest outside the Manhattan call center from which the calls originated Tuesday.

Read the full story for more details.

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