Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | February 12, 2008

Push polled to distrust

“A public opinion poll is no substitute for thought.” ~ Businessman Warren Buffett

An article tucked inside the Feb. 5 edition of the Morgan Hill Times caught my eye: Headlined “Firm polling locals about affordable housing,” it reported that a phone survey about revising Morgan Hill’s affordable housing policies was under way.

This article piqued my interest because an interviewer phoned my home and asked for me by name to respond to this survey.

When my husband handed the phone to me, I immediately asked the interviewer who was sponsoring the survey and was told that it was being conducted for the city of Morgan Hill.

That surprised me because I follow city business fairly closely and I hadn’t heard about a city-sponsored survey.

During the survey, the interviewer made assertions that were very similar to claims in home builder Rocke Garcia’s Dec. 21 guest column in The Times: that more than 35 percent of new homes built in Morgan Hill are below market rate (BMR) units, compared to 20 percent or less in neighboring cities.

The interviewer then asked if various arguments made me more or less likely to support a measure reducing the percentage of BMR units built in Morgan Hill, and if endorsement or opposition by various groups might sway my opinion.

After answering demographic questions at the end of the survey, I again asked the interviewer on whose behalf the survey was being conducted. I was again told that they were polling on behalf of the city of Morgan Hill.

As I read the article, I learned that was incorrect. According to Morgan Hill Business Assistance and Housing Services Department Director Garrett Toy, the survey is “not anything sponsored by the city.”

Home builders contacted by The Times about the survey refused to comment.

I don’t know who sponsored the survey, but I can make a reasonable guess.

I do know that I don’t like being misinformed about who’s behind the survey.

I frequently advocate critical thinking, which requires evaluating the source of information. Critical thinkers gauge the credibility of a claim’s source, including if the source has a bias or something to gain by making the claim.

I can’t do that when I’m misinformed about who’s paying for the polling.

When I learned that the city wasn’t sponsoring the survey, my first thought was that I had been push polled.

According to SourceWatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, a push poll is an attempt, “under the guise of opinion polling, … to shape, rather than measure, public opinion.”

SourceWatch gives an example of a push poll from the 2000 Republican primary race in South Carolina, in which voters were asked, “‘Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?’ [Pollsters] had no interest in the actual percentages in the poll, the goal was to suggest that he had [fathered an illegitimate black child]. This was particularly vicious since McCain was campaigning with his adopted Bangladeshi daughter.”

Kathy Frankovic, CBS News’ director of surveys, says that push polls are usually short and don’t ask for demographic information.

The BMR survey that I answered was lengthy and did ask for demographic information.

Frankovic says push poll interviewers “will sometimes ask to speak to a specific voter by name.”

That happened with the BMR survey that I answered.

The American Association of Public Opinion Research defines another type of poll, message testing, which consists of “surveys that are used by campaign consultants to test … the effectiveness of various possible campaign messages.”

AAPOR says that message tests have lots of questions, usually mention both sides of an issue, and do ask for demographic information.

Whether I took part in a traditional, legitimate survey, a message test, or a push poll, this much is clear: The misinformation about the survey’s sponsor has had an effect, although probably not one that supporters of changing Morgan Hill’s BMR practices might have wanted.

I am now much more suspicious of proposals to amend Morgan Hill’s ordinances regarding the percentage of BMR units that are built. I’m not saying that I cannot be convinced, but the interviewer’s misinformation has aroused my suspicions and shaken my trust.

“The toughest thing about the power of trust is that it’s very difficult to build and very easy to destroy.” ~ Businessman Thomas J. Watson



  1. […] how I described the survey in my Feb. 12 column: “During the survey, the interviewer made assertions that were very similar to claims in home […]

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