“Good Evening, I would like to speak to you about the upcoming election. It will only take a few minutes and it would be very beneficial to the candidates to see where voters currently stand on the issues. Do you have a moment to speak with me tonight? "
Most people who answer these phone calls respond in one of three ways: they hang up, sometimes with crass words (prompting the telemarketer to put their number back into the rotation); they politely decline to take the poll (getting marked “Do not call again”); or they take the poll.
Most people who take the polls are either in agreement with the script the pollster is reading to them, are clueless, or have recognized the true nature of these surveys and don’t mind playing along. In many cases, the goal of the poll isn’t to measure public opinion but to shape it.
In October 2014, I learned what pushpolling was as a working sheep at a “research” company in Reno, Nevada. I was hired thinking I would be making “get out the vote” calls in which I would tell voters about the candidates and issues in a more or less unbiased way, and would learn how they intended to vote. For a young person who loves the political process and was in need of a steady job, this was a win-win. Or so I thought.
On my first day, however, I realized through my training that the polling we would be doing was not unbiased. The questions we would ask were on the order of: “Don’t you agree that the Republican Party is for the people and can make our country the greatest nation in the world, while the Democrats want to promote dependency and take your guns?”
Push polls involve real people working from scripts. But in spirit they are often not unlike robocalls, including the one that a white nationalist group produced in Iowa on behalf of Donald Trump. It called him “the one candidate who points out that we should accept immigrants who are good for America. We don’t need Muslims. We need smart, well-educated white people who will assimilate to our culture. Vote Trump.”
Another robocall that made the news was reportedly received by a voter in South Carolina. She told The Washington Post that when she informed an automated voice that she intended to vote for Marco Rubio, the voice replied: “Did you know that Marco Rubio and the Gang of Eight are for amnesty?” It went on to say Rubio was “for letting 11 million illegal immigrants stay in the United States and that he was for letting Syrians cross the borders freely,” according to the Post. Rival candidate Ted Cruz denied any involvement.
Push polls are worded to try to make voters agree with the group paying for the calls. Often these polls are done not by the candidates but by outside groups seeking to influence the outcome of an election.
Push polling is an effective way to get messages out to the voters, even if that message is built on lies. Each call typically costs only forty-five cents to $1.30. A single company, depending on staff size, can reach hundreds if not thousands of people per hour.
“Opinion management helps you win campaigns, trials, and market share,” one polling company, National Research, Inc. of New Jersey, declares on its website. “You need to ask the right questions. You need to survey the right audience. . . . We’ve specialized in winning tough races in swing states.”
During the month or so that I worked as a push poller, I made calls for national campaigns, including Mitch McConnell’s Senate race, and several local races. The vast majority of these “polls” were negative and biased, and I came to realize that my job was about promoting hatred and division.
The employees would call in each morning to find out the schedule; when we arrived in the early afternoon, we learned what calls we would make. We worked in an open office with small cubicles, connected with headsets and computers that would start dialing as soon as we plugged in.
Some campaigns were just a simple plug for this candidate or measure, and would allow us to leave voicemails, but the majority were surveys. If someone didn’t answer the survey, wasn’t available at the time, or hung up without asking not to participate, they would be put back in the rotation.
Because I am no longer in the push-poll biz but wanted to know what pollers like me are pushing in the current election, I put out a request on social media. Reddit user Faith Lyss of Colorado shared her experience of receiving a push-poll call with me.
The caller asked Lyss who she planned to vote for in the Democratic primary for President, and why. When she said she intended to vote for Bernie Sanders, the caller “asked if I could be swayed to change my mind and vote for Hillary.” When Lyss said no, the caller started asking whether her view might change if she knew that “Hillary Clinton has been standing up for women’s rights and has defended Planned Parenthood for years,” or that “Bernie Sanders has never held an elected office higher than Senate. He has radical ideas that will be shot down in office by the Republicans and won’t be able to keep his promises if he gets in office.” And so on.
Nolan Dolan, a voter in Nevada, also shared his experience of being push polled toward Hillary Clinton. For him, the most striking thing about the call was that the pollster couldn’t pronounce “caucus.”
That rings true to me. At the polling outfit I worked for, there was no baseline educational requirement, not even a high school degree. There was no requirement that employees know a thing about politics. The starting wage was about $10 an hour. The company barely looked at a worker’s application or résumé; workers were just asked to read questions out loud and follow the script. This often proved difficult when people wanted to ask questions or needed clarification.
More than once, it was difficult for me to stick to saying what I was paid to say. A person can bite her tongue for only so long.
My downfall with the company came one night when the survey was pushing to make abortions illegal. My coworkers were almost as unhappy with having to do this one as I was. Management told us we’d be doing it all night, no other surveys.
I made the first phone call and got a woman in her forties or fifties, and as soon as she realized what I was doing she started to cry. She said she couldn’t believe this was still an issue that people were trying to fight. I told her I agree, that she was my first call and I already didn’t know if I could make another one.
We spoke for about twenty minutes—about eighteen more than the company wants. My supervisor was glaring at me from the front desk the whole time, but as the caller, you are never allowed to be the one to hang up.
This woman told me about the abortion she had to have when she was younger, when it was illegal. I cried with her on the phone and told her I was so happy she was my first call on this campaign. I hung up, told my manager to send me my final check, and walked out. ω
Jacqueline McKinney is a student and freelance artist in Reno, Nevada.