Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Pushing the envelope

Push polling is a nasty, nasty business.

Wikipedia defines push polling as "political campaign technique in which an individual or organisation attempts to influence or alter the view of respondents under the guise of conducting a poll." Most commonly, it relies on either an existing rumour or a potential rumour that the opposition thinks may have legs.

These polls are usually phrased along the lines of "Would you be more or less likely to vote for candidate X if you knew that [miscellaneous allegation of questionable veracity]"

Push polls seem to have more of a history in the United States, where complaints about push polls are an almost constant feature of any election campaign.

In the 2008 US Presidential election, both sides of politics flung accusations of push polling. Voters were allegedly asked what they would think if Obama had donated money to the PLO. McCain may still have been smarting from a poll that George W Bush was alleged to have run during the primaries in 2000 that asked if the voter would be less likely to vote for McCain if they knew that he had "fathered an illegitimate black child?"

That last push-poll was especially insidious as McCain has in fact adopted a Bangladeshi girl - the pollster clearly realised that the most damaging false rumour usually has just enough truth to it to make it irresistibly believable.

There have been intermittent claims of push polling in Australia, apparently dating back to a Northern Territory election in 1994 (details here: http://bit.ly/goyyWz).

This present NSW election has, sadly, been no exception.

The initial complaints were made in mid-February in the seat of Blacktown, where John Robertson is attempting to complete a move to the lower house, presumably to then make a push for the leadership after Keneally resigns or is deposed. The seat is held by a margin of 22.5 percent, but in this Brave New World no seat is safe.

The Daily Telegraph alleges that voters in that seat were asked "how voters would feel about two Liberal cabinet ministers being "anti-teachers", how they would feel about the Liberals cutting 25,000 public sector jobs and about Liberals outsourcing call centre services to India."

These are not Coalition policies - the poll is not actually designed to provide any useful polling data. The responses don't even need to be recorded. The only purpose is to spread gossip and even slander about the other side.

Today there were complaints from the Greens that Labor have been pushing polling in the inner-west seat of Marrickville (held by about 7.5%), where Green candidate and Mayor Fiona Byrne is tipped to defeat Carmel Tebbutt.

The poll asked "Did you know Fiona Byrne led a boycott against Israel on council recently?"

Now, for what it's worth, I think the council "boycotting" israeli products as a result of the Israeli "treatment of Palestinians" is utterly ridiculous, and an atrocious waste of limited council resources (86 hours of staff time spent as of as of 15 February 2011: http://bit.ly/hqHpDk pages 134 to 136). But of course, that's not the point.

The allegation in the poll is not even true - the Mayor did support the boycott but in no way "led it".

The poll is a vicious attempt to smear the name of the candidate. I couldn't find any denials from Labor in relation to the Blacktown poll, but Tebbutt denied that the Marrickville polls came from Labor.

It's difficult to imagine who else could possibly stand to gain from the polls. Perhaps the poll is being paid for by a Labor supporter with a "wink wink nudge nudge" approval from Labor staff. Denials notwithstanding, I think it's safe to assume that Labor persons are, one way or another, involved.

Politics is often ruled by innuendo and rumour. In the US, Obama is to this day constantly dogged by the utterly unfounded and ridiculous claims that he was not born in the States and is therefore ineligible to lead the country (see http://bit.ly/jP76Q). Some resourceful soul has even dug out the initial birth notice published in the Honolulu Advertiser - but this has not been enough to quell the ridiculously persistent rumours.

You might say that a push polls is an incredibly expensive way to win an election, one call at a time. But that's not quite true,

First of all, it targets voters in the seats you are most concerned about. Second of all, it lets you say things that you could never say on television, where people could test out your accusation. Thirdly, it's in an allegedly independent poll, so is therefore unlikely to be questioned by the voter.

Finally, the average NSW state district has about 40 000 votes cast. A poll that calls 1000 people, who tells an average of 3 other voters, has suddenly planted a nasty, insidious rumour with a full 10% of voters.

Rumours change elections - and there can be little doubt that some Labor persons are resorting to what can only be described as dirty tricks to hang onto what should really be safe seats.

Politics is a nasty, nasty business.

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