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Push Polls: Telling Campaign Tales

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Push Polls: Telling Campaign Tales

Push Polls: Telling Campaign Tales

Push Polls: Telling Campaign Tales

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Push polls are automated phone calls made to sound like an objective poll. But they actually are designed to promote a specific candidate. John Dickerson, Washington editor for Slate, tells Alex Chadwick about a recent wave of push polls.


Now we turn to political news and next week's midterm elections. If you live in an area with a Senate or House seat up for grabs, you may have received a phone call asking you questions like this one.

(Soundbite of automated operator)

Unidentified Man #1: On the issue of abortion, do you consider yourself to be pro-life?

BRAND: This may seem like a harmless survey question, but it could be an example of what's known as push polling. Push polls ask leading, loaded questions and are used to attack an opposing candidate.

So if you lived in Tennessee, let's say, and answered yes to that pro-life question, you would have then heard this.

(Soundbite of automated operator)

Unidentified Man #1: Fact: Harold Ford Jr. repeatedly voted to use tax dollars to pay for abortions in the U.S. and foreign countries. Fact: Bob Corker opposes abortion and opposes using tax dollars to fund abortions.

BRAND: Joining us to talk about push polling is John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine, Slate. Hi, John.

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Chief Political Correspondent, Slate): Hello there.

BRAND: Okay. This is the Tennessee Senate race between Democrat Harold Ford and Republican Bob Corker. And we just heard some so-called facts. Are these indeed facts?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well they're facts in the context of a campaign, which is to say that you can mangle anyone's record any way. And in this case, pro-Corker forces have taken Ford's record and mangled it in such a way that they're pitching it to pro-life voters.

BRAND: And why did you single out this particular race as an example of push polling?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, in part because the folks at were able to capture this audio, and also because this is the hottest most interesting competitive race of all the Senate races out there. The race has gotten vicious; and because the control of the senate hangs in the balance, this is one of those states that may very well determine control of the Senate.

BRAND: How effective is push polling?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well true push polling - and there's a question of whether that's in fact what this is - mirrors the sound and feel of a regular poll and sort of tricks voters. This is a little bit more blunt and it basically knocks you over the head. In this instance it's really an effort to kind of gin up Republican base voters by giving them these facts that you can get in a leaflet or in a campaign commercial. The level of deception here is pretty low.

BRAND: And why is it called polling? Do they actually publish the polls or…

Mr. DICKERSON: Well sometimes to add to the sort of sense of verisimilitude they publish the polls. They are meaningless, of course. But again it's called a poll in the cases where it really sounds and feels like a poll. And if it works, a true push poll tricks the person on the other end of the line. They think they're participating in a survey to gather information when in fact they're participating in an effort to sort of seed this information into their brains.

BRAND: All right, let's listen to the end of that phone message.

(Soundbite of automated operator)

(Unidentified Man #1: This survey was paid for by Common Sense Ohio, John Lind, treasurer. Goodbye.

BRAND: So it doesn't seem to be funded by the Corker campaign directly, paid for by this group from Ohio. Why would an independent group pay for this?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, because independent groups form on these hot button issues of abortion or same sex marriage, and they want to influence any of these debates because these groups worry that a Senate seat that turns democratic in Tennessee could flip the entire control of the Senate and the issues they care about would be in jeopardy.

BRAND: And push polling played a big role in the 2000 Republican South Carolina primary race. This was a pretty dirty race between then governor George W. Bush and Senator John McCain. Remind us what happened and why it worked then.

Mr. DICKERSON: John McCain had won in New Hampshire and he was headed with a big lead down into the South Carolina primary. Suddenly, these calls started happening. And what was particular about those calls is — the ones we've been talking about right now, it's regular old boilerplate of the campaign - but what was happening in the calls that were knocking McCain is they were basically whisper campaigns and rumors about his daughter and his wife and really insidious stuff. And McCain ended up losing in that primary. And a lot of people believe, particularly the McCain campaign, believe it was because of this whispering campaign that took place on the phones and sort of behind the scenes.

BRAND: And you wrote in your article on Slate that these push polling ads, if you will, these push polling phone calls, they're really a sign of desperation on the part of a campaign.

Mr. DICKERSON: Well the ones we were able to track are indiscriminate. They're just calling anybody, and a lot of the people that they're getting on the other end of the line are committed democratic voters who get so furious they're getting such a phone call it redoubles their desire to go out and vote. And so in an age of targeted campaigning, this seems just to be a very sloppy way to try to reach the voters.

BRAND: That's John Dickerson, he's Chief Political Correspondent for the online magazine Slate. Thanks, John.

Mr. DICKERSON: Thank you.

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