What to do if you get push-polled

I'm re-posting a piece I wrote over the summer, because robocalls against Barack Obama and other Democrats are hitting phones in a bunch of swing states.

Two days before the June 3 Democratic primary in Iowa, I received an automated push-poll, followed the next day by a second robocall containing "important information" for me. Both calls were hit jobs on Jerry Sullivan, the leading Democratic candidate in Iowa House district 59.

Many of us will receive similar calls between now and November. We need to be prepared to help the Democrats who will be targeted in this way.

My number one piece of advice is do not hang up the phone.

Do not hang up the moment you hear an automated voice on the other end.

Do not hang up the moment you are asked to participate in a brief survey.

Do not hang up the moment you realize that this is not a legitimate opinion poll.

Stay on the line and grab a pen and paper for taking notes.

Follow me after the jump for further instructions.

Most of the advice in this diary applies to any kind of political call you may receive.

You may be a respondent in a genuine opinion poll commissioned by a campaign or a media organization. These surveys usually ask quite a few questions and will collect basic demographic information, such as your age, race, family income, or education level.

You may receive a voter ID call, which seems like a survey at first but only asks a few questions, including whom you will vote for in a specific race. Campaigns or state parties commission these fake polls as a quick way to code people as supporters, non-supporters or undecideds, for use in later GOTV efforts.

A message-testing poll is a survey used by a campaign or an interest group to find out which positive or negative points about a candidate are most salient for voters. These tend to ask a lot of questions, sometimes about more than one candidate. You might be asked for your opinion of various well-known politicians who are not currently running for office. You will be asked for basic demographic information that allows the pollster to analyze the results.

I was a respondent for a message-testing poll commissioned by Congressman Leonard Boswell's campaign in January, and I wrote up that call based on my notes. Click that link to get a sense of how these surveys are structured. Like I said, they can be long. I was on the phone for more than a half-hour.

A push-poll is not truly a poll in that no one is collecting data for analysis. The only purpose is to get negative information about a candidate out to voters without leaving a rival campaign's fingerprints. So, a push-poll will usually ask only a few questions and won't ask for your demographic information. Also, a push-poll may go out to thousands of people, while a real poll will usually have fewer than a thousand respondents.

For a longer explanation of the difference between genuine opinion polls and push-polls, read this post by Mark Blumenthal, the "mystery pollster," or this post by Stu Rothenberg (who prefers the term "advocacy call" to "push-poll").

Back to the main subject of this diary: what you should do if you pick up the phone and are asked to participate in a survey, or are told that the caller has "important information" for you.

Hanging up won't help your candidate. Your candidate needs to know about anything out in the field.

As soon as you grab something to write with, take note of how the call began. Did the caller ask for you by name, or for the head of the household?

If the caller gives a company name such as "Survey 2000" or "Central Research," write that down. If it's a live caller, ask the person to repeat the name of the firm and spell it if necessary so that you get it right.

Take notes on everything you hear. If it's a robocall, the words will go by fast, but do the best you can. Don't be shy about asking a live caller to repeat questions or statements. Not only will that help you take more accurate notes, it will also force the caller to waste more time on you, instead of someone who might be influenced by the message.

Your instinct may be to show your disgust if you hear something that isn't fair or true. But you need to exercise self-control and not hang up like this person did after receiving a message-testing poll commissioned by the Clinton campaign in Iowa last summer.

Whether it's genuine message-testing or the most repulsive "advocacy call" ever, your candidate's campaign will benefit from the most complete information you can provide.

Try to record the wording of the questions or statements as accurately as you can, so you can determine later whether the call was pushing a demonstrably false line or simply a misleading one. For instance, the robocalls I got earlier this month said Jerry Sullivan was "believed to be" opposed to a woman's right to choose. Since Sullivan is pro-choice, there is no basis for that belief, but the careful wording avoided any outright lie. His campaign manager and I figure that whoever commissioned the calls was counting on listeners to draw conclusions from the candidate's Irish name.

Stay on the line until the very end of the call, so that you can write down the phone number that the law requires robocalls to provide. If you're speaking to a live caller, insist that he or she give you a phone number.

As soon as you can after getting the call, contact the campaign of the targeted candidate and ask to speak to the campaign manager. You can usually find a phone number or at least an e-mail address on the candidate's website (which you can find by googling the candidate's name).

Do not assume that the campaign already knows about these calls, especially if this is happening in a state legislative district. You are the best early warning system. Even if it's just a harmless voter ID call, they will want to know that it's in the field.

If it's a message-testing poll or a push-poll, they will be grateful for the specific information you can provide about the issues being highlighted. In effect, you are giving them a preview of attack ads that may be coming down the pike, so they can start preparing a response.

Next, I encourage you to write up the call and post a diary about it on your state's community blog for Democrats. You can find links to members of the 50-state blog network on national sites such as MyDD and Open Left. You should be active on blogs in your state if you're not already, whether or not you have breaking news to report.

When you write your diary, do not jump to conclusions about who commissioned the call you received. Last year some bloggers asserted that Barack Obama's campaign was behind a push-poll I received against Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, but that scenario never seemed likely to me.

This month a neighbor called me after getting the same robocalls against Jerry Sullivan, and she blamed his opponent in the Democratic primary. Sullivan's campaign manager and I think there is no way that candidate had the means to arrange those calls. The content of the calls hinted at the involvement of some Republican-aligned interest group, and it seems likely that they were hoping to weaken or defeat the person perceived to be the stronger general-election opponent. (By the way, Sullivan won the June 3 primary with nearly 80 percent of the vote.)

In general, a sleazy robocall is more likely to be funded by an outside interest group than by the rival candidate. You will have more credibility if you stick to what you know about the source of the call based on your notes (the name of the firm, the phone number given at the end of the call, the kind of information disseminated).

Don't forget to cross-post your diary on several national blogs if the target is Obama or a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House or Senate.

If the call was clearly deceptive or inappropriate in some other way, you may consider contacting political reporters for your local television and radio stations as well as any newspapers in your district. They will appreciate the news tip, especially if you explain that you took notes during the call and have details such as the firm's phone number. This could be a way to turn the tables on the candidate the push-poll was designed to benefit.

The danger here is that inviting media coverage of a smear may inadvertently plant the falsehood more firmly in voters' minds. After reading this excellent diary by mindgeek (the neurologist Sam Wang) on "The neuroscience of false beliefs," I will think twice before I call any journalists about an advocacy call.

The potential benefit of putting the Republican candidate on the defensive has to be weighed against the risk of amplifying misleading information about the Democrat.

Thanks for reading. I look forward to your comments, especially if you are experienced in campaign work, polling or political communication.

Tags: 2008 elections, Activism, push-polls (all tags)



Do you people have music players?

Mine comes with a cheap audio recorder. Why not record it for posterity?

by RisingTide 2008-10-17 06:34AM | 0 recs
do you record every call?

Can you turn it on to record after you've picked up the phone?

I admit to having a low-tech phone. It's got an answering machine, but I don't think I can record a call once I've picked up.

by desmoinesdem 2008-10-17 06:50AM | 0 recs
this isn't the phone.

I've got a Sansa Music Player (err... mine looks something like this) http://www.woot.com/Blog/ViewEntry.aspx? Id=3247

I don't have a clue whether Ipods do that or not...

And I'd still recommend writing everything down...

by RisingTide 2008-10-17 07:01AM | 0 recs
Re: do you record every call?

Make sure that you know what the laws are in your state regarding recording a call without informing the other side.  If it is an interstate call, then federal law would also apply.

I doubt there is a problem recording robo-calls.

by Do Something 2008-10-17 07:24AM | 0 recs
Re: What to do if you get push-polled

If it is a live person as opposed to a robocall, it really makes a lot of sense to do your best to keep them on the phone as long as possible.  The longer they talk to you, the less time they have for misleading others.

by lockewasright 2008-10-17 07:31AM | 0 recs
yes, it does

but most people want to show their disgust instead by hanging up the phone. This does not help at all.

by desmoinesdem 2008-10-17 08:14AM | 0 recs

Please don't refer to canvassing as "fake polling".  The point of canvassing is decidedly not to predict the outcome, it's to identify voters who will vote our way (and maybe do some persuasion if the voter seems amenable), so that identified supporters of our side can ge gotten to the polls on election day.  Reputable canvassers announce up front who they are, that they work for one party or candidate or another.  They do not actively pretend to be taking a poll.  And if the voter seems confused on that point, a reputable canvasser supplies corrective information.

by gtomkins 2008-10-17 07:33AM | 0 recs
sorry to offend you

but when I get a call from some research company, telling me they have a short survey, and it's just a voter ID call, I consider that a "fake poll."

It's not a dirty trick or anything, but when you ask these people who paid for the call, they rarely say the name of a candidate or campaign. They usually just say the name of the research company. The average person receiving this kind of call probably thinks it's for a regular opinion survey.

Just this week I got a voter ID call (half-dozen or so questions) posing as a survey by Western Research. I assume it was commissioned by the Iowa Democratic Party, trying to track voter preferences in my legislative district.

by desmoinesdem 2008-10-17 08:14AM | 0 recs
Some general advice

on the subject of wasting people's time on the phone.  I wrote this, some time back, on how to fuck with a corporation that you want a refund from, but as I say at the bottom, this is really designed for how you should deal with a recalcitrant politician.


Here it is.  You are getting advice from The Master.  When my family has problems like this, they come to me, because I have a fucking black belt in the art of Clerk-Jitsu.

The key word is PERSISTENCE.  That's it.  The more time you talk on the phone to them, the more employees, low level or high, that you tie up in explanations, the more annoying you are without crossing the line into being rude or abusive, that is money from their bottom line.  And if you play the game nicely and politely, you can do it for YEARS.

The question is, is it worth it to you to invest your time in a crusade?  Because if your time is too valuable, you probably lose.  If, however, you are so devoted to your cause that you will cheerfully cast away countless hours of your free time calling and visiting a store, there is a HIGH likelihood that at some point somebody at the store will say, "Aw, fuck it, just give him what he wants.  We have work to do.  Jesus."

This is why overt abusiveness, rudeness, legal threats, are all counter-productive.  They give the company an excuse to just cut you off from the complaint process.  From the point of view of a large corporation (and this will vary from corp to corp (that Canberra government office being a good example), their complaint policy is designed to say no until you just give up and go away, angry or happy, whatever.  The prospect that you JUST MIGHT have more time to play the game than they do throws a monkey wrench into this strategy.  That is why you must exude confidence and cheerfulness at each twist and turn, as if you're going to enjoy fucking with them.

The idea of going to the manager is a very good one, but it's only part of the process.  Each time you call, if you can get a lower level employee and drag him through the whole complaint process from beginning to end, before being shunted back to a manager (hopefully one who hasn't hung up on you before), you have cost them money.  An hourly worker (how much do clerks get these days?) talking on the phone to the same customer, repeatedly, about the same problem is an avoidable expense.

At some point, you will exhaust their patience and they will become abusive to you.  Hooray!  Be slightly shocked and offended.  Make sure that everybody knows that you know their name and job title.  Collect this information politely, early in every discussion, so it doesn't sound legally threatening.  They will remember this.  You are now armed to go to a higher up at the corporate level with not just a complaint about some lousy cheap shit-ass product.  You can now ask why you were hung up on or yelled at by the employees at the Lakewood Mall franchise when you were only trying to return a defective product.  Mention the name of the manager.  DO NOT get angry or openly seek vengeance.  Sound bewildered but professional.

You are ready to play the same game at corporate level.  And, oh yeah, don't give up with the lower level employees, too.  Call them up to see if they have spoken to Mr. Big Doohickey at corporate about the discussion you had with him about the product.

Eventually you will wear out the patience of Mr. Big Doohickey at corporate.  That's fine.  He has a boss, too.  You didn't try to hasten the process by going straight to his boss, did you?  No?  Good.  This is slow torture.  No water-boarding here.  Just thousands of paper cuts.

Again, at some point, Mr. Big Doohickey refers you to Mr. Bigger Whatzit.  This is a rather intimidating prospect for him, because now he's wasting his boss's time on a shitty $29.99 CD.  Hopefully, Mr. Bigger has more important things to do.  At this level, being rude is extremely counterproductive.  Waste this man's time.  Give this man the longest fucking possible explanation of your problem that you can muster.  Take your time.  Get confused and start over.  Put him on hold for a minute to take a call.  If you can do this from work, perhaps your hold system will play Muzak for him.  Stranger's in the Night, I hope.  Tell him you'll get back to him to finish your story, then do the same thing over again.

But before you get back to him, go back to square one and call the other low level employees, clerks, franchise managers, and tell them the progress of your adventure, that you have actually talked to Mr. Bigger and that he wants your problem resolved, and ask them if they have heard from him yet.  If they have not, tell them that it is imperative that they contact Mr. Bigger at once to find out how your problem is being resolved.

If worse comes to worse, and you get blown off by people too big to get past, just wait a few weeks and then start all over again, as if you have amnesia and can't remember what went wrong the first time.

There are more things you can do to fuck with their minds.  I mentioned the putting them on hold thing.  Another one is taking names and job titles.  Be very polite when doing that.  If they ask you why you want that, say it's because you may need to call them back and don't want to have to waste another employee's time starting all over again.  After they tell you their name and title, pause for a second and type it on a keyboard so that they can faintly hear a quiet clickety-clack in the background.  The implicit suggestion is that you are logging everything for some purpose, possibly not a benign one.

Also, when speaking to management people, when they start to tell you about their customer policy, ask them to fax a copy to you.  Ask them to explain it to you, not as if you are just one customer with a complaint, but as if you might have an agenda beyond just getting your refund.  Perhaps you are a journalist, or an attorney, or somebody from corp. testing them.  Who knows?  If they ask you what your job is, tell them that you are "a private consultant."  Remember: POLITE, CHEERFUL.

Okay, so you read all this and you said, shit, I can't do that!  It would drive me nuts before it drives them nuts!  Well, tough shit.  I'm telling you what works.  If you don't have the brass balls, well, just eat your defective product.  This isn't for wimps.  This is for borderline psychopaths who enjoy fucking with people.  I'm laughing my ass off writing this.  I wish I had some corporation to fuck with right now.

I do this regularly with Congressmen.  It's not good enough to just call your congressman.  You need to call everybody who works for him, everybody in his caucus.  You need to show up at his office when he's there and act as if you already had an appointment.  You want to do everything you can short of getting a restraining order filed against you.

by Dumbo 2008-10-17 02:24PM | 0 recs


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