I don’t have the slightest idea whether 5th District candidate Dan Roberti is behind the survey that is causing a commotion in the congressional race. What I do know is that whoever did it, the survey does not sound like a push poll and therefore shouldn’t be called one.

People have a tendency to get hysterical about anything that smacks of negative campaigning. The more campaigns can make their opponents look like bad actors the happier they are.  But in reality things are often more complicated.

The question arose when former 5th district candidate Randy Yale received a phone call seeking his opinions on the president, the governor and Sen. Richard Blumenthal. The caller then asked about two of the candidates still in the 5th congressional race, Chris Donovan and Elizabeth Esty, and framed the questions in a negative way. Yale told the New Haven Register that it became “obvious by then it was a push poll.” Roberti was not mentioned, which is why speculation centered on his campaign as the source for the poll. The Roberti campaign denied is it push-polling.

To explain why the 5th district survey is not a push poll, I am going to use a hypothetical rather than wade into this particular race. Let’s say I am running against an incumbent mayor who cut teacher salaries. I want to find out how the cut plays with voters. I conduct a poll to ask people what they thought about the teacher salary cuts. I don’t necessarily tell respondents that the mayor explains the reductions by saying the alternative, closing a school, would have been worse.  If the poll results reveal that that voters are concerned about the salary cuts, I am likely to spend more time talking about them. If they aren’t, I might switch to the property tax hike. That type of poll is called negative message testing. It might not be everyone’s favorite tactic, but it is a valuable tool in campaigns. It can even benefit voters because, based on the results, campaign might be more likely to talk about things voters care about, like the tax hike, not what they don’t care as much about, say the salary cuts.

By contrast, a push poll is not a poll at all. The goal of a push poll is to get an incredibly damaging fact or rumor into the public consciousness. A campaign pretends to conduct a poll, but it isn’t interested in the voters’ response. It’s interested in making sure voters learn negative information about an opponent. It is the type of information the campaign would not want to be caught saying in public because it is either poorly sourced or completely out of context. For instance, perhaps our mayor had been arrested for protesting apartheid in South Africa.  If the campaign said in public, the mayor was arrested, people would look into it, and more likely than not, not care. But if the campaign used a push poll, the caller could mention the opponent’s arrest without explaining the context, and thus plant the idea that the mayor is a lawbreaker.

Now there is not a perfect line between a push poll and negative messaging, but here’s some ways to tell the difference between the two. First, push polls usually reach large numbers of people because they are designed to spread an idea, not test a message. Because negative message testing is, in fact, testing, the surveys only go to as many people as are needed to measure the response. Second, negative message testing uses messages that could potentially appear in a 30-second commercial again, because the idea is to test whether the campaign should do that. Push polls ask about things that likely wouldn’t appear in a commercial because the idea is to insinuate information into the campaign without being responsible for it. Finally, push polls tend to be relatively short and focused because the campaign is interested in disseminating information, not accumulating data. Negative message testing seeks data and will ask whatever it takes to get the information.

Based on these criteria and there not being more to the story, the 5th district survey was not a push poll. The call Yale received lasted 17 minutes and ranged over many issues. The questions asked about Esty and Donovan – legislative voting records, campaign donations – are pretty standard 30-second commercial fare, not out-of-bounds rumors.

Getting these terms right is important. Almost all congressional campaigns use negative message testing, but only the darkest ones use push polls. Getting accused of one, when you are really doing the other, is not fair. When the press confuses the two, it hurts the public.

Jason Paul is a Connecticut political operative from West Hartford and a University of Connecticut Law School student. He does not work for any of the campaigns in the 5th District.