It happens  every election cycle. You’ll get a call that sounds like a political poll but is really a campaign tactic. Some calls are “push polls,” political telemarketing that attempts to create negative views of candidates or issues. Others are legitimate message-testing surveys, used by campaigns to see which types of messages will be most successful.

Here’s how you can tell the difference.

Push polls

  • Often ask only one or very few questions, all about a single candidate or a single issue
  • Usually ask questions that are strongly negative (or sometimes uniformly positive) describing the candidate or the issue
  • May not name the organization conducting the calls, or sometimes use a phony name
  • Do not ask for demographic information
  • Can give evasive answers when you ask for information about the survey
  • Usually call very large numbers of people, sometimes many thousands
  • Do not use a random sample
  • Rarely, if ever, report results

Message testing

  • Usually based on a random sample of voters
  • The number of calls is within the range of legitimate surveys, typically between 400 and 1,500 interviews
  • Usually contains more than a few questions, including demographic data
  • Will often share results on request

Taken from Understanding and Interpreting Polls (International), a self-directed course at Poynter NewsU, developed in partnership with the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), the World Association for Social, Opinion and Market Research (ESOMAR) and the World Association for Public Opinion Research (WAPOR).

Take the full course

Have you missed a Coffee Break Course? Here's our complete lineup. Or follow along at #coffeebreakcourse.