POLITICAL CAMPAIGN POLLING
If you have the budget, a political campaign poll done by a professional pollster can be a huge help in targeting your voters. However, unless you get a very competent pollster, the results of your public opinion poll can actually lead to your campaign making decisions that will hurt your chances.
Once you complete your poll, it is vital that you know how to use the information you have gained. Polls do not get you elected. They are tools that can help your campaign if used properly. Using a political campaign poll properly takes knowledge and skill.
If You Can’t Afford a Poll
Some campaigns will never have enough money to hire a professional pollster and others may not have the funds in the early stages of the campaign. What are your options if you can’t afford a poll?
1. Research the past voting history of your constituency. You should be able to review how your constituency voted on a large number of state and local issues and candidates. While voting patterns do change over time, the results of recent elections are one of the most useful sources of research material you can find.
2. Drive or walk around your area/constituency and list your observations. You may think you know your community well, but if you take at least a full day to look carefully at the area, you will get a better sense of it. Look at the condition of the streets, note where there is need, see if children are forced to play in the streets due to lack of recreational facilities, look for housing in poor condition, observe daily activities of the people and their economic activities, visit the health facilities and other public places. Are public facilities in one part of town neglected while they are well-cared for in another area? What churches, faith centers, clubs and businesses do you see? Most of us rush from one place to another and tend to go repeatedly to just a few places. Take a significant chunk of time and just see what you can learn. We call this “windshield research.”
3. Listen to people. You notice I didn’t say “talk to people. Sit at the counter in a public place and try to strike up a conversation about issues. Don’t give your opinion. Just say, “What do you think about…?” a particular issue. Ask the person who cuts your hair what they think and what they are hearing from other people. Listen to as great a variety of people as you can. Most sane people are hesitant to start talking about political issues to someone they don’t know well because political discussion has gotten so antagonistic in recent years. You may have to ease into the topic, but most people are willing to talk once they feel they aren’t going to get a hostile reaction. So, no matter how strong your own opinions are, just shut up and hear what others have to say.
4. One other option is to do a homemade poll with your volunteers/agents making the calls. This can have some validity if it is carefully done and you have someone who knows how to select a random sample, choose good questions, write a good script for the phone team and do the analytical work on the results. However, my experience in using volunteers to make polling calls has been pretty negative. Most volunteers have strong opinions and they can’t resist letting people know how they feel about the candidates and issues. This, of course, completely poisons the results.
If you decide to try doing your own poll, make sure you have someone reliable supervising the callers to make sure they stay with the phone script and remain neutral in the tone they use when talking to the voters. If you can’t put together a good quality poll, just stay with the other types of constituency research.
Choosing a Pollster
A poll isn’t an absolute necessity for a campaign, but it is a high priority. If you are going to spend a significant amount of money on your campaign, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to plan your advertising without testing whether or not your strategy is likely to work.
With the exception of very small villages or districts where you can talk directly with a high percentage of the voters and very low budget campaigns, a poll should be part of your campaign plan. Unfortunately a good public opinion poll is expensive. Ideally, you want a pollster who has extensive political experience, excellent analytical skills and access to very competent people to make the phone calls. Experience in polling in your area is also a major plus.
You should talk to the pollster’s previous clients and listen to stories where he is quoted. If there are major donors or political action committees who may want to contribute to your campaign, you should check with them to make sure the pollster you are considering has their respect. Portions of your poll results may be shown to sympathetic donors to prove that you have a good chance of winning. You want to be sure that you have a pollster who has credibility with those donors.
Rating the Political Polls
You may chose to also work with a group which has a regular feature that tracks the effectiveness of political campaign polls. This is one of the few places that pollsters are held accountable. Most of them simply slip off unnoticed after a bad series of calls in an election year and re-emerge in the next election cycle to sell their expertise to new customers. While there are many good pollsters who aren’t high profile enough to be included in these ratings, this will give you a good idea of whose numbers are trustworthy.