We all saw what happened in the 2016 elections. Numerous publicly available polls and most polling aggregators were predicting a win for Hillary Clinton, some estimating a large electoral college victory. Although it is true that more American voters supported Hillary nationwide, the way the vote fell put Donald Trump into the White House – and the ensuring governmental chaos, divisive actions and incompetence he has instigated.
Trump’s victory also left many to doubt the accuracy of polling, even though there is ample evidence that properly conducted polling remains reliable, albeit with more challenges than in previous years. Lower response and cooperation rates, a significant increase in Cell Phone Only (CPO) and Cell Phone Mostly (CPM) households and the corresponding decrease is the use of landlines have contributed to this challenge, although most reputable pollsters have addressed this issue. These issues are amplified at the local levels of campaigns, where smaller jurisdictions and populations are more challenging to sample than larger areas and populations.
So, what is it you should look for and expect in political campaign’s polling at the local levels to ensure reliability and strategic value to your campaign?
There are various key factors to ask and expect from a pollster when hiring them to survey for local campaigns:
- Understand that your pollster’s primary responsibility is to research and assess public opinion. Based on the opinions it is your pollster’s responsibility to provide you with a reliable assessment of the political environment, status of the campaign, recommended targeting, strategic plans and messages that fit your campaign’s needs and, most importantly, your values and beliefs. Your pollster is not there to dictate your positions on issues or exactly what to say, etc. Listen to your pollster as an honest guide and sounding board to put your campaign on a path to victory within the context of your beliefs, values and priorities that connects with the voters’ values and concerns.
- Understand the realities and practicality of polling in your county or local jurisdiction. Some areas can be sampled properly, while other areas are simply too small. A reputable pollster will give you an honest assessment of the practicality and provide alternative options if a standard survey is not practical.
- Know where the pollster will get their sample and what percentage of the sample is cell phones. Reputable pollsters and their polling data / sample partner firms will have a regularly updated sample with a high-quality cell phone match. The firm FR&S uses updates their samples every 4 – 6 weeks and, pending the area, will include up to 50% or more cell phones within the sample.
- Ask about the pollster’s sampling and screening techniques. Many of the accuracy issues with polling trace back to improper sampling and screening. The screens are often too tight, not allowing likely voters to participate, which was a known problem with some of the 2016 polling. Or, they can be too loose, letting in too many respondents who are not likely to participate in the election. This directly relates to the sample source (how good is the data?) and the screening techniques.
- Be involved in the process of drafting the survey and demand unique and customized research for your campaign. This does not mean the client / candidate writes the questionnaire. It means that the campaign Team has input in what information they want assessed or tested in the poll, with unique and localized customizations. Too often, a local campaign can be given a boiler plate poll based on a standard format from higher level campaigns without any customization that would be insightful to a local campaign. We saw a lot of this is 2016, when many down ballot campaigns throughout the country began mirroring some of the national messaging, which was a catastrophic failure.
- Expect realistic and practical strategic advice based on the data. Your pollster should develop data-driven strategic plans that fit your needs, the realistic capabilities of the campaign or organization, and the candidates or organization’s values and vision.
- Finally, understand and ask about alternative research techniques and if they are an option for your situation. More pollsters are starting to use mixed mode (phone + online) surveys where practical and increased use of online technology overall. In some cases, this may be useful to a campaign, although every situation is unique.
Campaigns, candidates and pollsters working cooperatively leads to higher quality research, stronger team building, and the development of focused and effective plans. It is vital that your pollster is committed to conducting accurate polls and developing practical strategic plans that fit your values and needs, as well as the dynamics of their situation. Properly assessing your pollster’s capabilities and match with your campaign, understanding what polling can do for you and listening to your pollster’s advice within the parameters of your values will lead to a stronger, more efficient and effective campaign that gives you a better opportunity to succeed.
Dave Fako founded Fako Research & Strategies in 1998 with the goal of providing clients with quality, actionable research and strategies. Dave Fako is recognized for his attention to detail, hard work ethic, competitive drive and refusal to accept the “I can’t” attitude. Dave Fako approaches all challenges and finds solutions to problems based on the winning philosophy espoused by the ancient Carthaginian General Hannibal and quoted by Saul Alinsky in his famous book, Rules for Radicals: “we will either find a way or make one”. For thirty years, Dave Fako has developed strategy for campaigns at all levels throughout the country, has advised numerous public policy advocacy organizations, as well as national and regional private sector companies. Dave’s expertise is state, local and judicial elections, as well as marriage equality, health care, and smoke-free issues, gaming, clean energy, education, tax and bond initiatives, telecommunications and pension and budget issues. More information on Fako Research and Strategies is found at www.fakoresearch.com.