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When Is a Poll Not a Poll?

“Polling” can be a loaded term. Since the early days of polling, the field has had to defend its reputation against the damage done by individuals and organizations who manipulate or even fabricate poll findings to bring the force of public opinion to their agenda. Some polling organizations release partial results, or only release numbers favorable to their client. Some conduct polls with biased question wordings.


woman receiving unwanted phone call


A push poll is not a poll at all. The goal of a push poll is not to gather information from respondents, but to push information to them. Push polls use biased language and leading questions to convince respondents to vote for – or against – a candidate or referendum. In this way, it is the equivalent of a marketing call. However, by describing the calls as research, a push poll can impart a veneer of impartiality to the messaging. In the most egregious cases, push polls can be used to start whisper campaigns, spreading false rumors to thousands of potential voters.

A push poll should not be confused with a legitimate poll that includes message-testing. Legitimate polls can, for example, provide negative information about an individual or a bill in order to gauge public response to that information. But the purpose is to measure the effect of that information on the respondent, not to communicate information directly to the public.

“Frugging” – fundraising in the guise of research – is another practice that uses the appearance of research to give legitimacy to another activity, in this case a request for donations. Closely related to frugging is “sugging” – sales in the guise of research. As with push polls, no data is actually collected in a frugging or sugging campaign.

Professional polling organizations stand united in their condemnation of these practices. Ethical pollsters fear that respondents who do not recognize a fraudulent poll for what it is will assume that all pollsters write biased questions or use their questions to open a sales pitch. These perceptions can damage confidence in survey research overall. So the polling profession makes education about legitimate and illegitimate polls an important priority in their outreach to the broader public.

How can you recognize a call from a purported research poll that is in fact intended for a wholly different aim? First, legitimate polling organizations will identify themselves at the very beginning of the poll. No legitimate poll will ever ask respondents for a donation or purchase. Finally, demographic questions about respondent age, education, gender or characteristics are of utmost importance to real research. Not only do these questions offer the opportunity for deeper analysis, many demographics are used to weight polls to Census benchmarks. Organizations that intend to sway or sell often do not bother to collect demographic information.

To learn more, see the American Association for Public Opinion Research, What is a Push Poll.