20 Questions A Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results - continued
15. In what order were the questions asked?
Sometimes the very order of the questions can have an impact on the results. Often that impact is intentional; sometimes it is not. The impact of order can often be subtle.
During troubled economic times, for example, if people are asked what they think of the economy before they are asked their opinion of the president, the presidential popularity rating will probably be lower than if you had reversed the order of the questions. And in good economic times, the opposite is true.
What is important here is whether the questions that were asked prior to the critical question in the poll could sway the results. If the poll asks questions about abortion just before a question about an abortion ballot measure, the prior questions could sway the results.
16. What about "push polls?"
In recent years, some political campaigns and special-interest groups have used a technique called "push polls" to spread rumors and even outright lies about opponents. These efforts are not polls, but political manipulation trying to hide behind the smokescreen of a public opinion survey.
In a "push poll," a large number of people are called by telephone and asked to participate in a purported survey. The survey "questions" are really thinly-veiled accusations against an opponent or repetitions of rumors about a candidate's personal or professional behavior. The focus here is on making certain the respondent hears and understands the accusation in the question, not in gathering the respondent's opinions.
"Push polls" are unethical and have been condemned by professional polling organizations.
"Push polls" must be distinguished from some types of legitimate surveys done by political campaigns. At times, a campaign poll may ask a series of questions about contrasting issue positions of the candidates—or various things that could be said about a candidate, some of which are negative. These legitimate questions seek to gauge the public's reaction to a candidate's position or to a possible legitimate attack on a candidate's record.
A legitimate poll can be distinguished from a "push poll" usually by:
The number of calls made—a push poll makes thousands and thousands of calls, instead of hundreds for most surveys; The identity of who is making the telephone calls—a polling firm for a scientific survey as opposed to a telemarketing house or the campaign itself for a "push poll;" The lack of any true gathering of results in a "push poll," which has as its only objective the dissemination of false or misleading information.