Don’t Call it a Push Poll: Bernie Sanders Campaign Edition

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 22, 2016 · 8:45 AM EST

Arguing about the term “push poll” is a biennial tradition and, thanks to the Bernie Sanders campaign, we get to do it once again.

On Thursday, ABC News wrote about a recent poll conducted in Nevada by a group that favors former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The headline, “Recording Suggests Hillary Clinton Backers Testing Attack Lines Ahead of Nevada Caucus,” was provocative and the availability of the audio was unusual.

It’s not surprising that someone heard negative messages being tested and thought something was improper. What was surprising was the criticism from Sanders’ pollster.

“In my view, it is one-sided and that is what you call a push poll. A whole battery of negatives against Sanders and then, ‘Would that make you more or less likely to vote for him?,’” Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin told ABC News. “You have to try to maintain some sort of balance and they didn’t even try.”

That may sound reasonable, but it goes against bipartisan agreement on the definition of the term “push poll” that goes back over 20 years.

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who has done extensive polling in Nevada for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, was quick to respond on Twitter: This is “testing negative lines of attack” as @taddevine says; it’s NOT a “push poll” as @TulchinResearch suggests."

I followed up with Mellman who reminded me, push polls were officially defined and condemned by the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) in December 1995, the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) and the National Council on Public Polls in 1996 and the Council of Marketing and Opinion Research (CMOR) (1996), The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research (2001) and by a letter from 35 Republican and Democratic pollsters in 1995 to the AAPC.

My colleague Stuart Rothenberg wrote about the difference between “push polls” and advocacy calls in a 2007 Roll Call column, “For the Thousandth Time: Don’t Call Them ‘Push Polls,” and my friend Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post did a good job of explaining this latest situation in his post, “No, Hillary Clinton isn’t push polling in Nevada.

But Tulchin’s criticism of the poll and use of the term “push poll” still didn’t add up.

He is a legitimate pollster who does work for the Democratic campaign committees, outside groups and credible candidates, including former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, who is widely-regarded as a potential running mate for Clinton.

Before I followed up with Tulchin, I wanted to make sure it was indeed a legitimate survey. I talked to the pollster, who only agreed to speak anonymously, and confirmed it was a random sample of likely caucus-goers in Nevada.

“Based on my many years of being in the polling industry, there are two kinds of ‘push polls’ – an ‘advocacy’ poll as you call it (not a scientific survey at all) or a scientific survey that is one-sided and tries to ‘push’ respondents in a direction without any attempt at being balanced,” Tulchin told me.

“The poll that was recorded attempts to be a scientific survey but is completely one-sided and only offers negative information about Bernie Sanders with nothing negative about [Clinton],” Tulchin continued, “So in my view, that makes it a push poll as defined by the latter description, a term that’s been used in the industry for many years and is still used today by pollsters, if not pundits.”

“Call it what you will, but that is a push poll from where I’m sitting as many pollsters would define it,” he added.

So I reached out to a handful of pollsters, Republicans and Democrats without a candidate in the fight, and they disagreed with Tulchin’s explanation.

They agreed that pollsters talk about “push questions” in their scientific surveys, but don’t use the term “push poll” to refer to their own surveys with “push questions” in them. They also explained that equity of negative and positive messages between both candidates is not only subjective and not always necessary, it is sometimes not even recommended because more messages limits the use of responses to later questions because respondents are biased with previous information.

“If everyone has their own personal definition of words and phrases, it’s very difficult to communicate,” Mellman told Roll Call, “The profession has long had a consensus on what a push poll is and isn’t. This poll as described does not fit the definition of a push poll in any way.”

“Ben seems to have shifted his role from a campaign pollster, who provides internal, unbiased analysis, to a campaign flack who spins the campaign message,” according to one unaligned Democratic pollster about Tulchin.

“[T]hat poll wreaked of panic,” Tulchin added. “The race in Nevada has tightened dramatically and they are freaking out. They threw a bunch of stuff in a poll to see what would stick.”

That may well be true. But please, don’t call it a push poll.