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A Consumers' Guide To Getting The Most Out Of Your Poll

By Brad Bannon

After years of struggle, the campaign industry has reached a point, I hope, where just about everybody in the business understands the necessity of polling. But what still is a fight is the question of how to use the poll after you take the time, trouble and money to conduct one.

After 25 years in this business, it still amazes me how little use people make of the polling they do. I now use the time I spent trying to convince people to poll trying to get them to use the poll to make tactical and strategic decisions after campaigns conduct a survey.

There are good and bad reasons to conduct political surveys.

The first bad reason to do survey research is because somebody from Washington told you to do one. Use the survey to inform the decisions that you have to make during the campaign. Both Democratic and Republican operatives undergo intensive campaign training and from the national party committees and affiliated interest groups and during the courses, the budding political stars receive checklists of things they should do when they get back to their campaigns. High on the things to do checklists they receive is “do a baseline poll”. Obediently the managers hire a pollster, conduct a baseline survey and then file the research away without plugging the data or the pollster into the campaign decision making process. At his point the thick poll book becomes nothing more than an expensive doorstop.

The second bad reason to do a poll is to confirm what you already think you know. Sometimes campaign operatives use polls like drunks use lampposts for support rather than illumination. So if you are doing a survey just to prove that the candidate is well known and much loved then you are ignoring the rich complexities of voter psychology that you can get from a poll. The first rule for success in politics is to know what you don’t know. A survey can open a whole new world of insights into the psyche of the electorate. So don’t limit your horizons by ignoring the data that conflicts with your perception of reality.

There are three good reasons to poll and they are to answer the questions about the what, why and how of the voter psychology.

The answer to the “what” question is a simple one. Any idiot can answer the “what” question, which probably explains my longevity in the business. This is simply an exercise in determining what voters think and what they feel about the personalities and issues involved in the campaign. What issues do voters worry about? What do the voters like and dislike about the incumbent or about the challenger?

At this point, many pollsters fell that they have done their job and unfortunately many managers let them off the hook at this point. But if you want to use the baseline survey to help you make vital tactical and strategic decisions, you need to get under the hood, kick the tires and find out why voters think the things they think and feel the way they feel. It is not enough to know what percentage of voters like and dislike the candidate or what number of voters worries about a particular issue. The pollster needs to be able to tell his or her client why voters like or dislike the incumbent and the challenger. The best way to get at the answers to the why questions is to present voters with batteries of pointed statements that they can agree or disagree with. Then the pollster with sophisticated statistical tools can precisely examine the correlations between these pointed positive and negative statements and voter preferences.

Once the pollster, hopefully me has been able to tell the client, hopefully you what voters are thinking and feeling and why they are thinking and feeling whatever it is, they are thinking and felling then the real work starts. At that point, the pollster’s job is to work with you and your other consultants to answer the most important question, which is the “how” question. The ‘how” question is how you talk to voters to move in your direction once you know what they know and understand their motivations. The answer to the “how” question is the theme or message for you campaign communications.

Anybody who has the capacity to print up some business cards can become a pollster. But the only pollsters who can help you win are the pollsters who can answer the what, why and how questions of voter psychology.


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