Types of Political Communication

Categories of Political Communication:


Legitimate political commercials usually are clearly identified with a particular candidate or cause, i.e., you'll hear "Vote for Joe Blow on election day."

If you can't figure out who paid for something, that's usually a signal to listen more closely. Take detailed notes, and listen in particular for any "paid for by X" line.

If you're tuned in for a long stretch of time, try and remember how many times you hear a particular commercial. Note the type of music used, and any relevant sound effects.

Make certain you note the call letters, station number, and time of day you heard the ad.

Often the most "out there" radio ads run on specialty radio stations that target a particular type of listener.

Direct Mail

Political direct mail can come from a candidate, a campaign committee, an advocacy group you've heard of, or one you haven't.

Make sure you save the contents of envelopes, but also the envelopes themselves, since they sometimes contain clues about where the letter came from, as well as some of the most questionable rhetoric.


A tough one, because unless you have the skills of a hacker, it's often hard to figure out where they come from. Read 'em and see if you can figure out who sent them. If you can't, then they probably don't want you to know who sent them. Which means that we DO want you to send them to us!


Political folks still aren't sure about how to make the Internet work for them. They're excited, though, because most voters now have access to the web, and communicating that way is relatively cheap

Candidates have their own websites, as do advocacy groups, campaign committees, political action committees, and independent so-called "527" groups.

Rules about identifying the site owners/financial backers are virtually nonexistent, so websites often don't make clear their owners' identities, and it's sometimes very difficult to tell the provenance of a particular page.

If you see a questionable pop-up ad or website, and don't know how to capture it, write down the URL (web address) that you were on when the ad or page appeared, and copy down as much of the content as you can.

Because web material can and does change, always try to note the time of day and date you saw the material.


Because of the attention that "push polling" has gotten in the last two presidential elections, a great deal of confusion has been created in the minds of the media and the public about what a "push poll" is, and how it differs from other types of political phone calls.

The glossary below is meant to differentiate the various types of calls.

In all categories, the words spoken by the caller can be positive or negative (or both); and true or false (or both). The point is to ferret out "bad" calls, but it is also important to be clear about what to label the type of call you get.

When you get a phone call asking you or telling you about political issues or candidates, you should do the following: ask the person who she or he is; who he or she works for; what state and town they are calling from; and whether he or she is connected with any campaign or political group. take careful notes on what the person asks or says. if you have caller ID, jot down the number. if it's legal in your state to tape telephone calls (and make sure it's legal!), record the conversation for posterity — and us. always ask questions. Your gut is the most experienced detector you have. ask friends if they've gotten similar calls. again, record the call only if it's legal in your state.** We DO NOT endorse violations of any law or statute. (see this web site: http://www.rcfp.org/taping/ if you're not sure ) note the date and time of the call.

If a call directly or indirectly advocates for or against a candidate or ballot measure through statements (as opposed to questions), that is an advocacy call.

If the caller does not or will not identify his or her organization, that is the more nefarious anonymous advocacy call.

Certain calls are straightforward, explicitly asking voters to turn out for a particular candidate, as in: "Hello, I'm Marc Ambinder. On November 5th, I'd ask that you vote for my good friend, Josh Green, who is running for Senate in Hullaballolia. This message paid for by the Josh Green for Senate campaign."

There is nothing wrong with these calls, unless of course they contain false or questionable language. Whether the caller identifies him or herself or not, these are, again, called advocacy calls.

Depending on the campaign, state, and funding, the calls might or might not mention candidates or causes by name.

Push polls are calls that pretend to be for the purpose of a survey but are, in fact, tools to "push" the respondent toward the candidate who is paying for the calls, or away from the opposition.

Sometimes, push polls are only indirectly connected to a candidate.

These calls are illegal in some states, and most reputable pollsters disavow them.

By pretending to be taking a survey, the firm making the calls generally hopes to spread a negative message in a way that seems more like legitimate research.

These calls are made in numbers much larger than a "real" poll, and are intended to actually influence the outcome of a race, rather than gather data.

Sometimes, an actual group of polling calls are mistaken by voters or the media for push poll calls.

Polling calls (made in numbers too small to actually influence the outcome of almost any election) are often used to test certain negative messages, and voter responses are tallied for use in a potential negative campaign (by future phone calls, radio, direct mail, etc.).

In all the above categories, calls can be automatic or robotic — a pleasant, bland, or scary recorded or computer-generated voice, or a recognizable recorded one.

Various members of the Bush family are favorites of the Republicans. Former President Bill Clinton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Hollywood celebrities are frequently used by the Democrats.

In these cases, there might not be anything false about what the messages say, but campaigns are trying to appeal under the radar to their base voters, without letting other voters know, and we'd like to hear about that.

Pamphlets and Fliers

If you see one lying around, pick it up. (But don't steal it if it isn't yours.)

We're also interested in voter guides you might get, from local, state, and national interest groups, unions, and business groups across the political spectrum.

Always try to remember where and when you got the document from, and, if you witnessed it, who was distributing the material.

The windshield wipers of cars parked at church the Sunday before election day is one place where such material often gets distributed.

E-mail your tips, comments and questions to: politicalunit@abcnews.com .