7 Questions with Alan Secrest on Polling
Political Strategist and Democratic Pollster Alan Secrest Answers Our 7 Questions
If you were working on a campaign or running for office in the 80’s, 90's, or 2000's, Alan Secrest was a ubiquitous and sometimes against-the-grain Democratic polling presence. Alan was a strategic force on dozens of targeted races across the country. He left the political consulting world, only to reemerge as Executive Director of the Tennessee Democratic Party, and now back again as a Democratic pollster, as the president of a polling firm with offices in DC, Atlanta, and Nashville.' Here is our 7 question interview with Alan Secrest:
1. Why did you leave political polling? Why did you come back?
I had to step away from the business and my company at that time due to enormous pressures on the personal side that involved significant expenditures, which diverted my attention from our typical marketing approach for all or part of three full cycles. I needed to be present for my children during this difficult period.
I took about a year and a half off, then agreed to serve as Executive Director of the Tennessee Democratic Party during 2014.
Although returning to polling was not my plan initially, the more I spoke with friends and colleagues, the more sense it made to return. I'd had a chance to refresh, recharge and re-imagine the kind of firm I wanted to (re)create. In 2015, the 'soft launch' of Secrest Strategies enjoyed success, and our intentional slow build and growing success in 2016 convinced me the new iteration of the firm was destined to succeed.
2. What has changed in the world of political polling?
How long do you have? Almost all of the changes in polling, per se, were well underway when I recused myself for a while. The available technologies continue to improve, and, when deployed properly, today's analytics are an integral and critical part of a complementary research battery.
But I have long observed and lamented a certain 'dumbing down' in some areas of our business. Too often methodological AND analytical rigor are sacrificed for speed and convenience. Too many surveys are crafted to yield a certain result, and questionnaires have become recklessly biased in too many instances. Screening questions, if they are used at all, are often inadequate. Few want to take the time and invest the effort in giving the respondent at least one opportunity during the survey to respond in their own voice, that is, a true (not pre-coded) open-ended format. The final survey product too often is a stack of crosstabs, the topline results, maybe a 2-5 page cover memo, and a 15-minute phone briefing. Thoughtful, thorough and accessible analysis is too often never forthcoming.
Add to this the short-sheeted investment many media firms make in their "polls," the improper deployment of robopolls and online polls, and the unforgivable decision to depend on algorithms as faux-polls, and the potential for problems becomes clear.
That said, several organizations and top political polling firms on both sides of the aisle, along with us, have demonstrated that accurate and actionable live-call polling is alive and well. You just have to know where to look for it!
3. How do get a representative sample in 2017/18?
The absence of sufficient rigor in the sampling process may be the number one obstacle to accurate and actionable polling today. As I noted, technologies have improved, but these are of little use in the absence of a clear-eyed intentionality and commitment by the user to sample the likely, rather than the 'wished for,' electorate. Start with a well-matched (phones) list. Be certain that a significant number of the completed interviews (from 30% to 50%+, depending on venue) are collected from cell phones, challenging though that is. Use well trained, centrally located callers (technology permits dispersed calling, but in our experience, the supervision and quality control provided is very inadequate). Spread the calls over several evenings (avoid Friday evenings, Wed evenings if possible in some areas, and minimize Sat calls, especially on a benchmark). Assemble prior regional turnout from a range of prior elections, to guide the distribution of interviews. Make provision, obviously, for Early Vote. Employ minimal or no weighting on self-ascribed partisanship. Look to multiple reliable sources and prior experience in weighting race/ethnicity; if the sample had been properly configured, such weighting should be relatively modest. These should be 'givens' in preparing a poll sample, but all too often they are not, and are sacrificed in the name of shortcuts to save money.
4. What do you do to make sure your political polling is accurate?
Accuracy should be the minimum expectation, within the bounds of statistical laws. Statistically, there will always be a few 'rogue' surveys. A client should be able to assume accuracy when selecting a polling firm. Sadly, accuracy has come to the fore as a major concern because of less than rigorous sampling AND analysis.
After every election in which we are involved, win or lose, we prepare a 'PostElection Advisory,' comparing aggregate and regional results in the last survey to the actual results, and comparing projected regional contribution to the actual. While these were initially an internal document to hone our methods, years ago we began sharing these with clients--a practice we continue today--for one reason: our projections were highly and consistently accurate.
A large part of the reason for that accuracy is embodied in the prior response, about sampling.
But questionnaire design has suffered as well, with far too heavy a reliance upon easily manipulated and misunderstood 'agree/disagree' questions, no open-ended questions (there is some disagreement among firms about the utility of these; in my experience, arguments about this matter or others, such as the value of screening questions, generally have one thing in common: lower completion costs for the pollster...just saying), order bias and questions about issues that provide far too little information to the respondent.
Worse, perhaps worst of all is providing dramatically unbalanced information about the two candidates prior to re-asking the trial heat. Such data is analytically flaccid and a blight on the credibility of the pollster. If it helps temporarily with fundraising, it ultimately undermines the process of political polling in the eyes of both the public and the client.
Finally, we analyze the data that emerges rather than molding it to the preconceived notions of the client. This, along with sampling rigor, accounts for our record, especially in the arena of 'upset wins' and wins in Democratic primaries.
5. You were known for being aggressive in your approach to marketing, campaigns, client engagement, and politics in general. Has anything in your approach changed?
Aggressive, proactive, leaning in... clients expect no less from their consulting team, from the first handshake through Election Night. At every stage of the process, we took care to provide what I call "the courtesy of candor." We still do. Misaligned expectations are a common source of dysfunction in a campaign. We engage in an integrated fashion to be sure clients receive every bit of value from a survey. Survey research, used properly, should inform every aspect of the campaign, from targeting to message to stump speech to recommended outreach platforms to fundraising, and more. Part of our job is making sure none of it goes to waste!
I'd say that our expectations of our clients were high, as we hoped and still hope their expectations of us are. It's a partnership. We need their best effort in providing requested input in order to make a survey as actionable as possible.
We've not hesitated to advise a client to gun the engine financially (more TV/mail) down the stretch to ensure victory. But we've also not hesitated--many times--to gently steer a candidate couple, usually with young children, away from taking out that second mortgage if it became clear that a win wasn't in the offing. Under those very difficult circumstances, I'd often suggest heading to Disneyworld right after the election as a family; I've received more than one call from a grateful candidate or spouse enjoying the Magic Kingdom with their kids after a few days away from the campaign!
All of the above with regard to our involvement and commitment to winning is still true...but having seen lots of wins, and some tough losses along the way, I don't take the marketing quite as personally as I might have at 29! I take it seriously, just not as personally!
6. What is your firm like today? What kind of clients do you work with?
While we still work with a wide range of candidates/ballot positions, our most recent focus has been on gubernatorial, state legislative, municipal and advocacy. Mostly virtual, we operate from three hubs now: Washington, Atlanta, and Nashville. Staff is a blend of several senior members of the former team and several very talented newcomers. Our shop is more boutique than in prior years, with a product that is streamlined and accessible while still highly rigorous and actionable, both methodologically and analytically. We have always been very hands-on, and that has carried forward.
7. What can Democrats say to Trump supporters who had voted Democratic in the past to win them back?
Having worked for Democratic candidates since I was fifteen, I've seen a fair amount of ebb and flow in Party fortunes, and I've observed it at both the federal and state levels. In either venue--and this happens in both parties--too often in dire or uncertain times, I see two reactions: an insistence on over-the-top party 'purity,' as well as a tendency to point the guns in, instead of out. Neither dynamic is healthy.
Over the years, our firm had huge success not simply in traditional Democratic strongholds, where the list of our progressive clients would fill the page, but in (then) "red" venues like OK, KS, NE, IN, GA, AL, AR, MS, TN or (now) swing states like NC, VA, MO, and PA.
Our candidates campaigned as neighbors who, as one put it, would "never forget who I am, where I come from, and who sent me." Like family, neighbors don't always agree, but they stay in community with one another, bear one another's burdens, and forgive. Most recent Democratic defectors to Trump are retrievable. Democrats have to make plain they WANT to retrieve them. Tone matters.
As many have written, Obama/Trump voters need to be reassured that Democrats "get" them...economically and culturally. Voters who supported Obama in '12 and Trump in '16 didn't somehow turn into deplorable bigots during those four years. But many ARE concerned about stagnating or diminishing economic opportunity for themselves and their children. They have been led to believe that the Democratic Party often seems, in their eyes, to go out of its way to play it's (traditional) "helping hand up" role for both newcomers to America as well as the 'creative class,' but at the expense of--and sometimes with a large dollop of condescension toward--middle class Americans.
In addition, our winners over the years in the red and swing states above--from Governor Sebelius (KS) to Governor Miller (GA...in better times) to Congressman/then Senator Joe Donnelly (IN) to Governor Henry (OK) and more--inevitably offered voters a message that called for both opportunity as well as accountability (see Bill Clinton in terms of his issues approach). When either party gets seriously off track, it often can be traced to a serious imbalance between these two critical dynamics.
For decades, the Democratic leadership, at the state and federal levels, understood and made room for leeway among legislators whose district or conscience compelled a certain cross-grain position on particular issues, while still maintaining sustainable discipline on most issues. That was a Party strength, not weakness.
8. What can the Democrats do to take back control in 2018 and beyond?
- Make state legislative races a much higher priority.
- Encourage and support District-friendly candidates.
- Be patient with candidates who don't always fit the 'mold,' but in years like 2018 often slip through to upset an overconfident incumbent.
- Appropriate the right lessons from prior campaigns instead of whistling past the graveyard.
- Enjoy Seth Meyers and SNL at home, but leave that tone there when you get back on the campaign trail; be sure Party spokespeople do the same.
- Help basically transactional voters understand what's in it for them in no uncertain terms.
- Study closely Richard Florida's research (Martin Prosperity Institute, University of Toronto) of employment sectors, especially 'service workers' and the access and opportunity they provide Democrats, as Tom Edsall has written, to GOP-lean districts in states like, say, WI, PA, MI, NC, FL and OH.
- Taking out incumbents means causing voters to fire them; this is incontestable. But make the disqualification credible; use the language and references that voters themselves use, and make plain in organic terms the reason the Democrat wants to serve.
- Never substitute any form of analytics for live-call polling; use them in concert.
9. Political Polling data is important, but it’s not the only information that campaigns have at their disposal. How much of a campaign’s energy and decision making should be focused on what the poll numbers are saying, what else should they be listening to?
Campaigns should be about honoring voters, first and foremost. Not pandering, but recognizing and acknowledging voters' mood, values, and issue priorities. Thoughtful and rigorous political polling should provide those insights, and, of course, the candidate and team must be willing to be informed and proceed accordingly. Polling should be an efficiency tool: how do you deploy limited campaign resources--people, time and money--in service to a win? As such, as discussed earlier, it should be a consistent informer of, and check upon, nearly every aspect of the campaign...and throughout the campaign because...things change.
There is a variety of other 'data feeds' increasingly available, and worthy of consideration. But many are often compromised by third party interests, too-narrow ideological assumptions, less than thoughtful modeling and/or are overbearingly devoted to Conventional Wisdom. That is the beauty of well-crafted and well-executed polling, and its "courtesy of candor," which every campaign needs. It pulls back the curtain on reality, rather than echoing a wish list.
Naturally, candidates need to be mindful of their own and society's ethical norms and boundaries; the tone and language of voters they meet (lots of swings and misses here in 2016); an experienced campaign team beyond the political polling, who know how to help the candidate give credible and resonant voice to the campaign's message; and those Party entities charged with assisting their particular campaign (DLCC, DCCC, state party or caucus, etc.).
10. Have you read anything recently that sheds insights into the American electorate?
- "Asymmetric Politics," Grossman/Hopkins
- "Political Divisions in 2016 and Beyond," Democracy Fund Voter Group, Lee Drutman
- "The Road to Somewhere," Policy Exchange/Richard Goodhart
- "Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation Survey," June '17 ('Rural Divide')
- "Trumped," edited by Larry Sabato
- "Between the World and Me," Coates
- "The Refugees," Nguyen
- Anything by Thomas Edsall
- "Hillbilly Elegy," Vance
- "Just Mercy," Stevenson
- "To Kill A Mockingbird," Lee
- "Heart of Darkness," Conrad
- "Born to Run," Springsteen
Thank you to Alan Secrest for Answering our questions. Trying to get in touch with Alan Secrest? He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.