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Law puts tighter limits on push polling

Last modified: 8/30/2014 12:43:05 AM
As the election season heats up in New Hampshire, so too does the barrage of polling and campaign calls.

Ahead of this campaign cycle, the state has narrowed its definition of push polls, a phone call that sounds like a polling survey but instead is used to spread negative information about a candidate.

The changes to the state’s existing law clarify the difference between push polls and research surveys and have been praised by pollsters and research firms alike. The newly updated law has been in effect since the spring, according to the attorney general’s office.

Now, the state requires callers running push polls to identify themselves, state who is paying for the call and make it clear that the call is a “paid political advertisement” before asking any questions about a candidate.

And the legislation narrows what constitutes a push poll – calls that last less than two minutes, reach a certain number of voters and aren’t conducted for legitimate survey and opinion research.

“It’s now a bright-line rule . . . either it meets the criteria or it doesn’t,” said state Sen. David Pierce, a Lebanon Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation passed in April. It’s the volume of calls, and their length, that really distinguishes push polls from polling research. “Legitimate opinion polling takes longer than two minutes to conduct,” Pierce said.

“I think these are good guidelines,” said state Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican who co-sponsored the legislation. “If you want to do push polling, you have to identify it and who paid for it,” he said.

Pollsters and research firms have applauded the change as well. They said the state’s earlier law on push polls was too broad and as a result had a chilling effect on legitimate polling and campaign research in the state.

“Now, it’s easier to define what a push poll is, and more importantly what’s not a push poll,” said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

Just because a poll contains negative information about a candidate doesn’t make it a push poll, he said.

Campaigns routinely engage in message testing when they ask voters questions about their own candidates or their opponents to assess strengths and weaknesses and whose messages resonate.

“It’s very important,” Smith said, and a way for campaigns to hone their message.

Usually, message testing surveys and polls will ask voters for their demographic information, whereas push polls won’t, he said. Research polls will usually contain several questions in a survey that lasts minutes, while push polls generally consist of only a few questions in order to reach more people in less time.

“Push polling is not designed to collect any information, really,” Smith said. “It is campaign advertising disguised as a poll.”

New Hampshire’s previous law on push polling, enacted in 1998, was so broad it made it hard to enforce any infractions, Bradley said. That law said asking questions about opposing candidates that offer information on their “character, status or political stance or record” could be considered push polling.

The law, however well-intentioned, made it hard to ask legitimate questions about a candidate’s record, said John McHenry, vice president of North Star Opinion Research, which has done surveys in the state.

This campaign season, the attorney general’s office has received about a half-dozen calls from residents who reported receiving push polls. But so far, most of the complaints have not met the law’s new standards because the calls went on longer than the two-minute time frame, said Assistant Attorney General Steve LaBonte.

In addition to being less than two minutes, under the newly revised law a phone survey needs to reach at least 2,000 people for federal elections, 500 people for state or local elections, or 200 for state representative races in order to be considered a push poll.

Researcher and pollsters usually call a set sample size for surveys, whereas push polls try to reach as many voters as possible.

Push polls are defined as calls for purposes other than “bona fide survey and opinion research,” according to the law’s new wording.

The strict definition could create possible loopholes, a few officials said. But, McHenry said, it’s hard to write a law that allows legitimate research but doesn’t have any loopholes.

Smith said push polling is relatively rare in New Hampshire. Firms “want to get information about candidates, find out what issues are most effective and least effective,” he said.

The newly narrowed push poll definition makes it easier for the state’s Department of Justice to weed through the calls it needs to investigate, LaBonte said.

“One of the first questions I will ask is, ‘Well, how long was the call?’ ” LaBonte said.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)


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