7 Questions with Dave Fako on Political and Advocacy Polling
Dave Fako founded Fako Research & Strategies (FR&S) in 1998. His career in politics, public policy, and government affairs spans over thirty years. Over his career, Dave Fako has developed strategies for statewide, congressional, state legislative, and municipal candidates, in addition to referendums, and has advised numerous public policy, advocacy organizations, and national and regional private sector companies. Dave Fako has developed expertise in state, local, and judicial elections, and on marriage equality, health care, smoke-free issues; gaming, clean energy, education, tax and bond initiatives; telecommunications; and pension and budget issues. Prior to founding FR&S, Dave Fako served in various senior-level positions with former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan’s state and political organization and the Democratic Party of Illinois, and as the Political Director of NALC Branch 825.
1. How have you used your past political experience to lead Fako Research and Strategies?
Like most people involved in the consulting side of the political, policy, and government business, I started out as a volunteer fieldworker, in this case for the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon in 1984. I gradually worked my way through the system earning experience in every aspect of campaigns and public policy advocacy. All of FR&S’s staff since 1998, including current Research Director Sandy Kim, had similar experiences. I was taught early in my involvement that this is a game of addition and building relationships. My strategic approach to all of our clients has always been to apply my varied experiences in all aspects of campaigns and initiatives and focus on building through addition and relationships. It is through these varied experiences that we assess and process information into practical strategic recommendations for all aspects of campaigns, public policy initiatives, or governmental actions. Our deep breadth of knowledge and experience of state and local politics, as well as extensive professional networking, has led to a diverse range of candidates and issues at various levels of government. This is also why many clients or contacts are long-standing relationships that have been developed over time and have lead to other opportunities to expand our work.
2. Why are polling and research still important?
Quality, accurate, and reliable public opinion research with realistic assessments and recommendations has always been important for political campaigns and policy initiatives. Public opinion research, broadly, is still important and vital for the work that gets done by candidates, elected officials, or organizations to ensure a well thought out, information-based plan, a focused and disciplined execution of the plan, and the information needed to adjust the plan as needed. Certainly, the scope of any survey will drive the questions asked, but there is no other practical, accurate, and reliable way to gather the opinion of the public, whether they be voters or stakeholders, or members. It is through public opinion research that officials and organizations can make informed decisions on how best to serve, represent, and communicate with their constituents. Strategically or practically, research still guides decisions and actions better than other information.
3. How have you seen political opinion change over the years especially in Illinois with a mix of rural and urban areas?
The common theme that we, and most public opinion researchers, will tell you is of an entrenched divide along partisan and ideological lines that has developed and hardened over time. We have observed this nationally, in all regions of the country, our home state of Illinois, and even in local non-partisan municipal races. By proxy, we are observing this manifest in policy initiatives too. Beyond that entrenchment, we just see more underlying emotion, frustration, anger, and divisive “us vs. them” or “friends and enemies” sentiments behind candidate preferences and policy positions. In our home state of Illinois, similar observations are seen. Illinois is still reliably Democratic, although it is less Democratic than many perceive. As we are seeing nationally, Illinois has transformed with a fairly rigorous urban/rural divide, seeing former Democratic strongholds in rural parts of central and northern Illinois and deep Southern Illinois, with its southern culture, become solidly Republican while Republican-leaning and competitive suburban areas have become reliably Democratic. Both of these trends started in the mid-1990s, particularly the suburban areas which started to flip Democratic in the 1996 election cycle but became more pronounced as the national movement happened recently.
4. How have you adapted to technological changes like the increase in Cellphone Mostly (CPM) households and online surveys?
The research profession has significantly changed over the last two decades, with the emergence of Cellphone Only households, greater use of online surveys, and new communication techniques and habits. FR&S has been at the forefront of adapting to these changes. Fako Research was among the first firms to actively conduct interviews via cell phone in 2002, we began using online surveys as a data collection method in 2005, and we have continually adapted our sampling and screening techniques to ensure accuracy and reliability. Obviously, we have seen the rise in proportions of cell phone interviews as more and more households become Cellphone Only. Generally, more than half of all interviews are conducted via cell phone now and it’s common for this to approach and exceed 75% of all interviews. We have been able to adjust as necessary with the years of experience incorporating cell phones. Despite operational costs associated with incorporating new technologies, it has been necessary to make the investment in order to properly reach people and gather quality data. We also began doing online surveys in 2005, and utilizing multi-mode surveys (phone + online) and exploring texting options has also allowed us to adapt to changes in communication behavior. Internet-based surveys are an effective research tool for select projects, targeting known or very unique populations and complementing other data collection methods. This is a common data collection methodology that FR&S offers as an alternative or complement to our research services. Online surveys provide our clients unique and economical research options and can be used for special projects such as online ad testing. They are particularly efficient and cost-effective when surveying known identifiable populations where a quality list with accurate contact information exists, such as organization membership, school districts, or very precise, narrowly targeted populations.
5. Your website lists your newly developed Fast Track Poll. How does this poll enhance campaign strategies in down-ballot races?
We actually developed this concept more than a decade ago. The polls were developed in response to changes in the market, especially a significant increase in the use of IVR / Robo polls. Because we always emphasized accuracy and reliability, we wanted to ensure our clients had a quality, economical option as pressure to use the low-cost, but less reliable, IVR polls increased for our down-ballot clients. Since they are designed for campaigns and initiatives with lower budgets, this option is highly focused in scope (short), without sacrificing the quality of the data.
6. For advocacy and public policy organizations, is a large sample size necessary to gauge public opinion regarding a particular issue?
The answer is no, but really what is a large sample size? The answer is it depends on multiple variables. Any public opinion research firm conducting a survey for an organization should utilize a sample size that meets their needs, is reliable for the sample population, and is credible with those who may consume the data such as decision-makers or the media. You’re always going to want a sufficient sample size, and, generally, a larger sample is better, especially for sub-group analysis. Whether you’d need a larger sample size would depend on the size of the population being sampled and the depth of assessment for the data. As a general guideline, most polls will be in the n=300 – n=800 range.
7. How are you using online focus groups to help clients make decisions during COVID-19?
Online qualitative research is not new, although the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased use of this technology definitely increased its utility. As with quantitative research, qualitative research has been experiencing its own set of changes, with the increased use of technology and online tools as people began using these tools for more interaction, business, and social activities and became more comfortable with them. The COVID-19 pandemic crisis accelerated this adaptation as more people became aware of and utilized online communication tools, such as Zoom, FaceTime, Google Meet, and similar platforms for personal and professional activities. This has increased the use and utility of these types of tools and methods for qualitative research. Partnering with Erica Rickel of Quest Opinions, we employ many innovative online techniques for qualitative research that translate well to gathering insight in a time of social distancing. Online focus groups are well suited for research among voters, consumers, or organizational members and donors. And unlike in-person studies, online research offers an excellent way to recruit respondents without being restricted by geography and the travel and logistical challenges that in-person studies present. This can include online focus groups, engagement boards, In-Depth Individual Interviews (IDI’s), and Triads.
After an unprecedented 2020 general election amidst a global pandemic, what are some lessons you have learned?
I think the most important lesson learned is a positive one. When people are engaged and motivated, even with the divisiveness and pandemic impacts, they will participate and vote.
How do you ensure polling is conducted across an accurate representative sample in districts that are diverse across wide-ranging demographics?
For all research projects, big, small, among relatively homogeneous or widely diverse populations, we start by gathering information from the client about the profile of the target to be sampled. We also conduct our own internal research and assessment of the population to be sampled. This helps us understand what that population should look like to the degree we can make that assessment. We use this to set the sample frame and stratification targets (quotas) based on various variables, frequently by geography, to ensure a representative sample of the population. We match our research and assessments to the data sample to ensure everything is in alignment and identify any challenges that need to be addressed. The foundation of this is working with high-quality US-based data collection centers and data firms who regularly update their data, conducting quality control checks throughout the process, and utilizing statistical analysis to ensure that we are getting as close a representative sample as we can to existing demographics. Once all data is completed, we make appropriate weighting adjustments based on known demographics (never a blind guess).
What are things that clients should be doing but may not be thinking about?
From a public opinion research perspective, clients should be thinking about the value and relative ROI on their research in relation to costs. The reality is that polling costs have significantly increased in recent years and there is a temptation to go for the low-cost option or even the cheap IVR / Robo options. However, that frequently leads to poor quality, unreliable, and inaccurate data with the ensuing poor judgments that will be made based on the low-quality data.
Another thing clients should be thinking about is social media–either incorporating more if they are not sufficiently engaging enough in social media efforts, or curbing the tendency to rely too much on, or overestimating their reach via social media.
Finally, incorporating different modes or formats for polling/research such as multi-mode or online surveys and utilizing both qualitative and quantitative data.
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