Last night I was able, for the first time, to test the theory that the iPhone consumes significantly more power when doing 'push' sync with our service. I left a fully charged iPhone on a shelf in a location with 5 bars ATT 3G service, and push enabled (which is the default configuration). This morning, after 12 hours on the shelf, the iPhone's battery level indicator was still at 'full'. At first I suspected that it wasn't actually syncing so I pulled the server log records for the device. These indicated that the phone had completed a 'ping' sync operation roughly every 7 minutes all night, which is exactly what we'd expect it to do. In previous investigations, when users have reported increased battery drain over night, the server logs showed exactly the same thing: normal regular pinging.
Although this is a single data point, it does tell me that whatever is leading to the reports we see of significantly increased batter life is probably a function of the cell radio in the phone, rather than the sync client or some strange interaction with our service. Perhaps when it's in a location with marginal service it burns much more power sending packets or flipping back and forth between towers, for example.
I'm keen to dig deeper into this mystery and to do so we'll need reports from users who either do or do not see major battery drain from an otherwise idle iPhone that's using push sync. Please send any reports to firstname.lastname@example.org with subject 'iPhone Battery Drain Investigation'.