In a recent note, I referred to Josh Marshall’s sleuthing (here and here) showing that “push-poll” phone calls in South Dakota were being made by veteran Republican dirty trickster Arthur Finklestein.

A reader asks a highly sensible question, to which I think there’s a good answer.

I’ve always been a bit puzzled about the criticism of the “push-polling” that you describe — if the goal is to spread nasty rumors about someone, isn’t that a horribly inefficient approach? A poll of 1000 people can learn a good deal about the public’s views, but calling 1000 people to implant views will only reach 1000 people, plus perhaps some of their friends, though not all of the 1000 will pass this along. Surely there must be cheaper ways of doing this than by calling people one by one?

The answer: Calling people is actually dirt-cheap. At a nickle a minute for long distance and $8 an hour for people to make the calls, if you can get on and off in five minutes you’re reaching voters for a buck apiece. But unlike a call that starts by saying, “This is the Snort for Congress Committee,” which warns the target that everything said thereafter is likely to be a lie, a call that says “This is the American Research Company, and we’re doing a poll” conveys no such warning. By introducing the negative information in the form of a question, you get it past the voter’s bullshit detectors. It doesn’t work every time, but it works enough to pay for itself. Not only that, you have some hope of secondary transmission: “Marge, did you hear….”

Push-polling has one other huge advantage over advertising as a way of spreading slander: it’s completely deniable. A false charge in an ad risks rebuke from the media. But Thune can just keep denying that he knows anything about this, as Bush did about the push-polls in South Carolina suggesting that McCain’s Sri Lankan adopted daughter was actually his bastard by a black mistress, and mostly get away with it.

As far as I can tell, it’s completely legal, though a creative prosecutor could try to call it “use of interstate wires to defraud.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: