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N.H. Bill Calls for Push Polls Disclosure

Concord — New Hampshire laws that are meant to curb political advertising that masks as polling actually prohibit legitimate research widely used by campaigns, a pollster told a House committee yesterday.

The practice is known as push polling and is essentially advertising, whereas legitimate message-testing surveys might contain a negative message, but are meant to gather information that campaigns then build into advertising.

The state attorney general has recently sued groups whose polling violated the current statute, including 12 still being litigated. One assessed $400,000 in fines to the campaign of former U.S. Rep. Charlie Bass for calls made during the 2010 race.

Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center, said he believes many of the complaints filed with the attorney general are politically motivated.

“The cases that we’ve seen are cases of message testing in which the respondent didn’t like the message that was being tested,” he said.

If the law remains in place, national political consultants and research firms could avoid New Hampshire, Smith said, which would diminish the state’s significance in national politics.

A proposal before the House Election Law Committee would change the definition of a push poll from subjective to objective criteria, said Sen. David Pierce, D-Hanover. Currently, push polls are defined by the manner in which they are likely to be construed by the voter, he said.

The bill would add criteria that push polls be defined as calls less than two minutes in length made to 2,000 or more people in congressional, presidential or gubernatorial races and 500 people for executive council, state legislative and local races.

The number of calls is important because to effectively sway a race, push polls must reach a large number of voters, Smith said. By contrast, the results of message-testing research can be extrapolated using a small random sample. He added that Gallup, the national polling firm, will often conduct national surveys using 1,500 respondents.

“If you’re doing real message testing, you want to know not only what you’re opponents’ weaknesses are, but what your own weaknesses are,” Smith explained.

The bill does not ban push polling, but requires campaigns to disclose such calls as paid political advertisements. They would also be required to give the name of the organization making the call, the organization paying for it, the candidate or candidates on whose behalf the call is being made and a call-back number.