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The NYT, in a “report” by Raymond Hernandez entitled “‘Survey’ Calls Attack Bloomberg Rival” [scare quotes in original]:
He is comfortably ahead in the polls. He has the vast powers of incumbency at his disposal. He has the backing of the city’s most powerful business interests.
But that does not seem to be enough for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
As his campaign sought to overpower any candidate considering challenging him, Mr. Bloomberg commissioned a telephone poll last month that spread derogatory information about Representative Anthony D. Weiner, one of the mayor’s possible rivals in the race.
The calls came around mid-March, even as Mr. Weiner announced he was not certain he would run for mayor.
In interviews, several people who received the telephone calls said that they were told when they picked up the phone that a survey was being conducted, but were soon asked a series of questions featuring negative information about Mr. Weiner.
The questions began benignly enough: Are you registered to vote? Do you plan to vote in the mayoral election? But then they shifted to Mr. Weiner, asking whether the person’s views of Mr. Weiner would be altered if he or she knew of problems involving Mr. Weiner, from missing votes in Congress to having difficulty keeping staff to accepting campaign donations from foreign fashion models.
“At first I thought it was a market research thing,” said Sandra Kane, a 67-year-old registered Democrat from Forest Hills, Queens. “As the questions got more mud-slinging, I said to myself: ‘I’m not hanging up now; I want to see where this is going.’ ”
Now, let me explain something, since the NYT isn’t going to bother, or can’t. Virtually every candidate for major office conducts surveys that include tests of the impact of negative messages against their opponents. I conducted hundreds of similar surveys on behalf of various liberal Democrats over the years.
Now, you may not like the candidates, and you may not like negative campaigning, but this research technique is used by everyone from Al Franken to Norm Coleman, from Dianne Feinstein to Sarah Palin. The survey research company calls a small number of likely voters, maybe 400 for a congressional campaign to 800 or more for a major statewide race. After getting an initial measure of the voters’ current sentiment — e.g., how would you vote if the election were held today?, etc. — the respondents are exposed to persuasive messages, usually including negative information about the opponent. Then they are asked again how they would vote after hearing this information, to see if there is any change.
The results are used to rank messages and select the most effective, as well as to gauge how moveable the electorate is (i.e., do voters change their minds after hearing info?) and to identify those voter groups who are most persuadable. The Times apparently made no attempt to ascertain the size of the sample, length of the survey, what other questions were asked, who the pollster was, etc., that would resolve whether this is a legitimate message-testing survey or “push-polling.”
The intent of these surveys is almost never to persuade the small number of voters in the sample, who would be insufficient to affect the results. The Times pretends otherwise:
One of the Congressman’s aides said that the calls seemed suspiciously like push-polling — a technique disavowed by reputable pollsters in which phone calls disguised as survey research are used to spread negative information about an opponent.
Joel Benenson, a senior campaign adviser to Mr. Weiner, called push-polling “one of the most discredited and dishonorable forms of negative campaigning.”
It is true that some (relatively few) campaigns have engaged in this “push-polling” technique. But it is almost certain that this was not the case with the Bloomberg poll. To be effective, push-polling has to contact thousands — tens or hundreds of thousands — of voters, not hundreds. Further, those “push-polling” calls are brief — usually under one minute, just enough time to pretend to be a real survey and then to spread a single piece of pre-tested dirt — and they are invariably done close to the election. Rather than a random sample, those polls target just those swing voters who are thought (demographically) to be most susceptible to influence.
Joel Benenson, pollster to Barack Obama among others, knows all of this very well. If he didn’t use this exact technique last year to test messages against John McCain, he wasn’t doing his job. Unless he has evidence that many thousands of voters received these calls, and that the Bloomberg survey didn’t follow the template of standard message-testing research, he is simply fooling a gullible reporter.
There could hardly be a less effective or efficient way of influencing an election than to call a random sample of several hundred voters, and keep them on the phone for 10, 15 or 20 minutes, eight months before voters go to the polls.
The ignorance of this report, the obvious slant (starting in the second paragraph), the deadpan assertion that the purpose was to “spread derogatory information” (and why is it OK to do this in a TV ad but not to test it in a survey?), and the use of scare quotes around “survey” in the headline, are all far beneath the standards of a paper like the Times.