Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (28): Push Polls

Push polls are used in election campaigns, not to gather information about public opinion, but to modify public opinion in favor of a certain candidate, or – more commonly – against a certain candidate. They are called “push” polls because they intend to “push” the people polled towards a certain point of view.

Push polls are not cases of “lying with statistics” as we usually understand them, but it’s appropriate to talk about them since they are very similar to a “lying technique” that I discussed many times, namely leading questions (see here for example). The difference here is that leading questions aren’t used to manipulate poll results, but to manipulate people.

The push poll isn’t really a poll at all, since the purpose isn’t information gathering. Which is why many people don’t like the term and label it oxymoronic. A better term indeed would be advocacy telephone campaigns. A push poll  is more like a gossip campaign, a propaganda effort or telemarketing. They’re very similar to political attack ads, in the sense that they intend to smear candidates, often with little basis in facts. Compared to political ads, push polls have the “advantage” that they don’t seem to emanate from the campaign offices of one of the candidates. (Push polls are typically conducted by bogus polling agencies). Hence it’s more difficult for the recipients of the push poll to classify the “information” contained in the push poll as political propaganda. He or she is therefore more likely to believe the information. Which is of course the reason push polls are used. Also, the fact that they are presented as “polls” rather than campaign messages, makes it more likely that people listen, and as they listen more, they internalize the messages better than in the case of outright campaigning (which they often dismiss as propaganda).

Push polls usually, but not necessarily, contain lies or false rumors. They may also be limited to misleading or leading questions. For example, a push poll may ask people: “Do you think that the widespread and persistent rumors about Obama’s Muslim faith, based on his own statements, connections and acquaintances, are true?”. Some push polls may even contain some true but unpleasant facts about a candidate, and then hammer on these facts in order to change the opinions of the people being “polled”.

One infamous example of a push poll was the poll used by Bush against McCain in the Republican primaries of 2000 (insinuating that McCain had an illegitimate black child), or the poll used by McCain (fast learner!) against Obama in 2008 (alleging that Obama had ties with the PLO).

One way to distinguish legitimate polls from push polls is the sample size. The former are usually content with relatively small sample sizes (but not too small), whereas the latter typically want to “reach” as many people as possible. Push polls won’t include demographic questions about the people being polled (gender, age, etc.) since there is no intention to aggregate results, let alone aggregate by type of respondent. Another way to identify push polls is the selection of the target population: normal polls try to reach a random subset of the population; push polls are often targeted at certain types of voters, namely those likely to be swayed by negative campaigning about a certain candidate. Push polls also tend to be quite short compared to regular polls, since the purpose is to reach a maximum number of people.

What is Democracy? (27): Independent Political Parties

Disadvantages of private funding for political parties

What is necessary is that political parties be autonomous with respect to private demands, that is, demands not expressed in the public forum and argued for openly by reference to a conception of the public good. If society does not bear the costs of organisation, and party funds need to be solicited from the more advantaged social and economic interests, the pleadings of these groups are bound to receive excessive attention. John Rawls

The financing of political parties in a democracy is a controversial matter, especially in a democracy such as the US where parties and candidates have to spend huge amounts of money on advertising and promotion in highly mediatized campaigns. If parties and candidates’a0have to rely on private donations, there is indeed the danger of unequal influence: parties are likely to listen more closely to the requests and opinions of private groups, and these groups then acquire more influence than the ordinary citizen. A democracy should try to achieve the ideal of equal influence.

Moreover, the unequal influence of donors is likely to be self-interested and non-transparent. And it can become corruption.

Party financing scandals have rocked countries in every region of the world, generating increased contempt for and public disillusionment with parties and politicians, and undermining public confidence in the political process. (source)

Disadvantages of public funding for political parties

On the other hand, when you don’t allow private donations you probably alienate the public from politics. A donation is an expression of a political opinion and of support for a candidate, and should be protected by the freedom of speech. Most people want nothing in return, except for the keeping of promises. If the system is widespread and popular, the risk of favors in return for donations is small. Also, government subsidization of political speech may be as unfair as private funding: how shall the state decide which candidate to fund and which not? And, finally, it seems unjust that citizens’a0are forced to subsidize with their tax dollars candidates and political speech with which they disagree.

Mixed and limited system

So perhaps a limited system could work:

  • maximum amounts of donations
  • income disclosure obligations for politicians
  • general transparency of the system including expenses by candidates
  • bans on some kinds of donations (for example donations from racist organizations)
  • a mixed private-public funding system
  • prohibition of “indirect funding”, funding to front organizations not legally linked to a candidate or a party but promoting their election nevertheless (e.g. the infamous Swift Boat Veterans)
  • rules on equal media access as a limit on the publicity opportunities of the wealthiest candidates
  • anonymous campaign contributions
  • voting with dollars“: voters would be given a $x publicly funded voucher to donate to federal political campaigns’a0as they please (see here as well)

This is a good database of the funding and spending situation in the US.

What is Democracy? (16): Strong Man?

Democracy means continuous confrontations between a maximum number of different opinions coming from a maximum number of levels of society, all of which have to be treated equally, with the same respect and attention. We have to listen to and take into consideration every opinion on an equal basis. This confuses, complicates and extends the debates. Debates have many different antagonists and often take a very long time before they reach a conclusion. This introduces an element of slowness and inefficiency. A democracy does not seem to be a very efficient system of decision-taking.

Furthermore, the larger the number of different interests or different groups participating, the more difficult it is to reach a decision which pleases a majority. It often takes much effort, time and complexity to unify different and contradicting interests into a single compromise decision. This again introduces elements of inefficiency. And as if this is not enough, a democracy makes it possible to question a decision over and over again. New arguments have to be taken into account and the debate is open-ended. As a result, decisions change and a feeling of insecurity and instability prevails.

Democracy equals complexity, obscurity, confusion, chaos, slowness, unpredictability, doubt, insecurity and discontinuity. It is not surprising, therefore, that many people long for the relative simplicity, certainty, clarity, invariability, reassuring stability, order and swiftness of the decisions in a dictatorship, where there is only one voice that speaks.

Efficiency, resolve, clarity of vision, firm direction and the ability to do things become the most important values and the equal participation of all has to be sacrificed in order to realize these values. Tyranny becomes less objectionable when people tire of social conflict, struggle, confusion, compromise, insecurity and change resulting from equal democratic participation. To decide once and for all, quickly and in a simple way, to do something and to be active is indeed easier when decisions are made by only one person who must listen to nobody but himself (in most cases it is a him). The decisions of a dictator can be fast, efficient, simple, clear and definitive. He does not have to take other opinions into account, he does not have to consult all layers of the population, he does not have to wait and see which opinion wins the struggle of ideas and he does not have to make compromises. He is master of the situation because he can force people. As a result, he can act and he can develop an image of resolve, forcefulness, decisiveness and efficiency. People may even accept the violations of human rights that result from dictatorial action, if this is the price to pay for clarity, decisiveness etc.

It is true that democracy is sometimes incompatible with simplicity, clarity, speed, steadfastness and continuity. In a democracy, it is sometimes difficult to take fast, efficient, simple and definitive decisions. This is a weakness because swiftness, simplicity, efficiency etc. are important to many people. Insecurity, unpredictability, obscurity, confusion etc. generally cause dissatisfaction and even fear. Every individual tries to avoid obscure, uncertain and unpredictable situations for him or her personally, so why cherish these “values” at the level of society and politics? Only those who want to hide something can make use of them. On the other hand, discussion, equal participation and massive consultation do not have to be an impediment to action as long as decisions are not postponed indefinitely. On the contrary, they are necessary conditions for wise action because a wise decision needs a maximum number of arguments and points of view.

Decisiveness is clearly not the only or most important value. Quality and acceptability are also important. What is the use of having a fast and simple decision if it is a stupid one or if it is unacceptable to the people and therefore thwarted by the people? Acceptability is one of the justifications of democracy because large-scale and equal participation guarantees a large degree of acceptability. Acceptability and easy implementation are therefore also elements of efficiency, just as speed and simplicity. In a democracy, decisions may be more difficult and more time-consuming because of the large number of equal participants and equal interests, but they are also more acceptable and therefore easier to implement and enforce.