There’s Polling and Then There’s Push Polling

By Peter Toll

Has a pollster called lately? Did they try to influence you with an eye to possibly changing your mind? If so, beware. But first a little background.

Independent election and issue polling started in the early 1960s. Some folks named Gallup had a bright idea: “Let’s just ask ’em” when seeking how people felt about a political candidate or a particular issue. Then we can sell the information, they figured, and make some money. They made it statistically sound.

As the business expanded into differing media and opportunities, the variations have become endless and sometimes disturbing, such as in a recent poll showing the race to re-elect Gov. Kate Brown here in Oregon as a tie, 45-45 percent with 10 percent undecided.

There are lots of things wrong with the poll, according to legitimate opinion-research analysts. The Brown campaign quickly brought some of that to light, including the fact that the online magazine Slate described the Gravis Marketing firm that did the poll as impossibly bad.

Under a 2014 headline “The Worst Poll in America,” the article by David Weigel awarded Gravis the “Strategic Vision Award for Botched Polling,” as it hugely missed election forecasts by at least 35 percent. But that’s another story for Buehler’s polling firm.

Oregon’s most prominent political pollster for many years was Tim Hibbitts, a founder of the firm DKH in Portland. His opinion research had a solid reputation for accuracy both on the outcome of political races but also views on key issues. If his polls said an outcome would happen a certain way, it was usually true.

Most of his work was for Democrats in the state, while Republicans had their own favorite. They liked to use Jim Moore, now a poli sci professor at Portland State. Hibbitts is a soft-spoken statistical maven while Moore is often quoted on Oregon politics, among other topics, in the media.

These two did legitimate political polling. They wanted to know how people felt and they did it professionally — using lists of voters (frequent or otherwise) balanced by gender, age groups, different locales in the state, and so on.

Next comes the push poll, which these gents eschew. Some wacky genius decided to see if people are dumb enough to be influenced by an anonymous “pollster” on the phone. After introducing themselves as pollsters and getting the subject’s attention, they would turn the questioning around a tad.

“Mrs. Jones, you’ve said you favor Kate Brown for re-election. If I told you that she won’t fix the PERS pensions where some government retirees are getting tens of thousands of dollars a month income, would you still vote for her?” That would be a good example.

The plot just thickened. Not only is the pollster grossly over-simplifying a very complex situation where the governor has no control whatsoever, he is also trying to make the voter change their mind. This is not so subtle campaigning, not polling.

This example is typical of cheap tricks at election time. And it happened to a close friend who just moved here from another state. He told me about it. He had also seen the television ad reinforcing the same mischaracterization.

He was outraged that the governor would condone such a thing. “How could that happen? Why doesn’t she step in?” he asked me with a somewhat indignant tone of voice.

After he calmed a bit, I explained that this was a massive misrepresentation. The PERS problem is immensely complicated, that the former head of OHSU hauling in $70,000 a month in retirement is a gross exception (the average PERS recipient gets closer to $1,300 per month!), and, if anything, the legislature should fix it. (Also immensely difficult due to results of several court cases.)

To top it all off, I explained, the guy making these charges is a sitting legislator who hasn’t done anything of any merit or introduced any strong PERS legislation or very much else that matters.
“Well,” he said, “that’s different.” It sure is.

But how many people have someone knowledgeable they can trust to talk to them about this kind of stuff. Not many.

So voters must be on the alert for these cheap tricks. An informed electorate can usually make the right decision. An electorate which is ignorant and easily swayed into the “they’re all bums” camp is dodging its civic duty.

Peter Toll is a long-time Clackamas County political activist.