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The Yes on DiSC Campaign is Using a National Telemarketing Firm to do "Push Poll" Telephone Solicitations Disguised as Surveys

The campaign has retained Dynata, a Texas marketing firm, to repeatedly call thousands of Davis voters over and over until the phone is answered.

PushpollwordcloudBy Alan Pryor

Who is Dynata?

Numerous Davis citizens have reported receiving a "push poll" survey telephone call concerning the proposed "DiSC 2022" project from a firm headquartered in Plano, Texas whose caller ID otherwise identifies the company as "Dynata" from either Hayward or Oakland in the Bay Area. Dynata (https://www.dynata.com/) is a privately-owned online data collection company owned by two private equity firms, Court Square Capital Management and HGGC. ("DiSC 2022" is a 102-acre proposed mixed use business park that would be constructed on prime farmland outside the current City limits, just north of I-80, the Ikeda fruit stand, and the City water tank, and just east of Mace Blvd.  It will be Measure H on the June ballot).

According to their website, "Dynata, LLC... and their parents, affiliates and subsidiaries world-wide (collectively referred to hereinafter as “Dynata”) provide sampling solutions and technology for survey research, providing clients with access to consumer and business-to-business respondents via internet, telephone (both fixed/landline and wireless/mobile), postal and multi-mode methodologies."

But the firm is poorly thought of by both consumers and peers in the survey research industry.

According to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynata), "According to the Better Business Bureau online profile for Dynata, the company receives 1.35 of 5 stars. A review of recent reviews on the site indicates that many members of the general public are annoyed by Dynata's telemarketing practices - Dynata LLC | Better Business Bureau® Profile". www.bbb.org. Retrieved 2021-09-28."

What is a "Push Poll"?

According to the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), 

"AAPOR defines a "push poll" as a form of negative campaigning that is disguised as a political poll. “Push polls” are actually political telemarketing -- telephone calls disguised as research that aim to persuade large numbers of voters and affect election outcomes, rather than measure opinions..."Push polls” are not surveys at all, but rather unethical political telemarketing -- telephone calls disguised as research that aim to persuade large numbers of voters and affect election outcomes, rather than measure opinions. This misuse of the survey method exploits the trust people have in research organizations and violates the AAPOR Code of Professional Ethics and Practices."

They further state, "Political telemarketing calls, when disguised as research, may sometimes be difficult to differentiate from a legitimate survey." According to the AAPOR, one characteristic that will usually indicate to a respondent that the call is not a legitimate survey is that the questions are uniformly negative or uniformly positive descriptions of the candidate or issue. In addition, the number of people called in "push polls" is very large, sometimes many thousands, and the calls are not based on a random sample.

Well, that certainly sounds like Dynata's strategy for their calls made to Davis residents. From talking with several people who have received these "push poll "surveys calls from Dynata on behalf of DiSC, Dynata started calling Davis residents on both their landlines and cell phones about 2 weeks ago. One can understand the frustrations of Davis consumers with Dynata because in some cases the company repeatedly called a phone number beginning from just noon through 7 pm until the phone subscriber eventually answers the call. No voice mail messages were ever left by Dynata on unanswered calls. One Davis-registered voter tracked the following incoming calls from Dynata to their cell phone made within only a few days:

Thursday, February 17:
1:16 pm
2:58 pm
4:35 pm
6:08 pm
6:57 pm

Friday, February 18:
1:57 pm
4:54 pm

Saturday, February 19:
12:25 pm

Some of the Phone Calls are Clearly not in Compliance with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA)

The TCPA ostensibly protects consumers against unwanted telemarketing calls by imposing a variety of restrictions on the hours telemarketers are allowed to dial. However, these limitations do not impact unscrupulous market research companies because the stated intention of their telephone calls is not a solicitation but simply a survey of consumers preferences and/or intentions. Companies like Dynata attempt to circumvent the TCPA by performing a "push poll" (explained above).

As seen in excerpted summaries of the push poll questions presented below, the questions presented to Davis voters were clearly uniformly biased toward obtaining a positive response and influencing public attitudes toward DiSC.

Additionally the TCPA imposes further restrictions such as prohibiting calls to cell phones and land-lines that are listed on the "Do Not Call" registry and stipulating that no call may be made from a system that has the capability to automatically dial to any consumer's cellular telephone without that consumer's express and explicit consent to do so.

These restrictions are obviously not being adhered to by Dynata because one person reported receiving 8 unanswered calls on their cell phone (again with no message left) with the caller variously identified as "Dynata – Hayward" or "Dynata – Oakland" on their incoming call logs. This particular cell phone owner said no explicit permission has ever been given to any telemarketers or survey firms allowing such calls to be directed toward their cell phones.

The Nature of the Push Poll Conducted by Dynata

These calling onslaughts are also directed to both cellular and land-line phones with multiple users reporting receiving numerous such calls before they finally answered. When one user finally picked up and asked the caller from where the call was made, they were informed that the caller was in Texas even though the caller ID identified the origin of the call as from the East Bay. 

Others have also reported receiving multiple calls with no messages left and the calls continued at the rate of several per day until the line is finally picked up. One user asked if they could record the call (permission is required for call recording in California) but the caller abruptly hung up.

When recipients of such calls finally did pick up and respond, they were asked for the person in whose name the landline is registered. If that person is not available, they then ask the name of the person to whom they were speaking.

I should note that the recipients of these calls from Dynata all indicated that the callers were polite and professional as compared to other aggressive telemarketing boiler-room operations also simultaneously conducted by Spafford and Lincoln under the auspices of an independent PAC. These calls use paid student interns posing as "volunteers" as will be discussed in a follow-up article.

The following notes on the calls from Dynata are a compilation of the "survey" calls as reported by two recipients who took abbreviated hand-written notes during the conversation but did not record the calls. As a result, although the recipients indicated the reported questions and answers accurately reflect the nature of the call, they were not the exact wording of the questions nor the answer choices offered. Most of the questions about the DiSC project were multiple choice questions with some asking for simple "Yes" or "No" or "Agree" or "Disagree" answers.

Initially, the Dynata callers did indicate they were soliciting opinions on the DiSC project which they identified by the project's full name and said the questions to be asked would be focused on the project's impacts on community values, sustainability, and providing opportunities for everyone.

The first question asked whether the recipient knew about the DiSC project and, if so,  what the recipient thought about DiSC with available answers ranging from "very appealing" to "very unappealing".

The next question asked if the recipient agreed or disagreed that the DiSC project was exciting and interesting and that DiSC would be a place to "live, work and play".

They were also asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement that DiSC would be a place where UCD and or companies could be located to perform research about food and trying to "solve the world food and hunger problem." Another question asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement that locating DiSC so close to UC Davis was advantageous for the project.

Other questions attempted to get more personal information about the call recipient's views on traffic including how often they drove (once a day?, once a week?, etc.) and if they were concerned about traffic (very concerned, slightly concerned?, etc.).

These led to more leading questions about traffic such as if recipient agreed that traffic will be improved for DiSC by adding an electric shuttle service, planned improvements (not specified) to Mace Blvd, and by adding HOV lanes to the I-80 freeway through Davis and across the Causeway. Call recipients were also asked if they agreed  or disagreed that adding native habitat to the project was desirable as well as if they agreed or disagreed that having onsite restaurants, shopping, etc. at the project was convenient for residents and employees.

Another leading question was if the call recipient agreed or disagreed that it was beneficial that DiSC would produce income to the city so that taxes would not have to be raised to provide essential services such as police and fire protection and fixing streets, etc. 

They were also a few general interest questions asked to gauge the recipient's sentiments, such as if they thought Davis' "best days" were ahead or in the past.

At the end of the poll, recipients were asked personal questions that each had 5 possible answers including job/work or retired status, age range, how long they had lived in Davis, home rental or ownership status, and their name. 

"The Threat of "Push Polls" - Political Telemarketing Under the Guise of Research" (published by the AAPOR)

The professional research survey firm trade group, AAPOR, has made extensive statements on "push polls" (see https://www.aapor.org/Standards-Ethics/Resources/AAPOR-Statements-on-Push-Polls.aspx), including the following,

"Political advocacy calls made under the guise of a survey abuse the public’s trust. They gain the attention of respondents under false pretenses by taking advantage of the good will people have toward legitimate research.

When disguised as research, these calls create negative images of legitimate surveys, especially when they distort issues or candidate characteristics in order to influence opinion.

They go beyond the ethical boundaries of political polling by bombarding voters with distorted or even false statements in an effort to manufacture negative attitudes.

The hostility created in this way affects legitimate surveys by reducing the public’s willingness to cooperate with future survey requests."  

"AAPOR Position on So-Called "Push Polls"

  • AAPOR Councils have repeatedly warned members and the public about the harm done by unethical political telemarketing that is conducted under the guise of research.
  • The AAPOR Code identifies fraudulent political polling as unethical conduct. The Code states: "We will not misrepresent our research or conduct other activities (such as sales, fundraising, or political campaigning) under the guise of conducting research" [section I.A.2.].
  • AAPOR has reacted to complaints about suspected “push polls” and conducted investigations.
  • AAPOR urges its members and the media to uncover instances of political telemarketing under the guise of research and help us alert the public promptly when these fraudulent political polls occur."

Conclusions

It is clear that the "survey" conducted by Dynata on behalf of the proponents of DiSC fall within the classic definition of "push polls" according to the AAPOR and may violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 by using auto-dialers for calls made to cell phones without the explicit permission of cell phone users.

Comments

Daniel Cornford

First, thanks for this Alan. A very basic and simple question: Who is paying for this "push poll?" I presume not out CC but developers, and also that this is hard information to find.

Todd Edelman

I think it's very reasonable to want to live in a city with a mayor that initiates a Council resolution - or similar strong statement - to condemn illegal activity like this and ensures that City legal staff takes any necessary action so that the relevant authorities can swiftly determine if this is indeed illegal as described, and if it is, sell "Abuse of the Process for Bad Development is Anti-Davis" t-shirts at Farmers' Market.

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