Political Polling in a Pandemic with Alan Secrest 7 Questions

by The Campaign Workshop

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Political Polling In a Pandemic- 7 Questions with Alan Secrest  

Alan Secrest has been polling for 35 years and reached out with some insights into political polling during a crisis:  

1. Why is live-call political polling beneficial at this moment in time?

Political polling is an invaluable part of any campaign strategy at any time. One of the benefits of having conducted live-call polls for over thirty years is the opportunity to identify and explore patterns that seem to recur in seasons of similar social context. During periods of intense national consternation and anxiety, campaigns at every level sometimes have a tendency to "stand down" to a degree above and beyond that which is actually preferred by voters. However, there is plenty that can and should go forward. One such example is live-call survey research. (The benefits and advantages of live call vs. IVR or online is an important topic for another day.)

2. Why should campaigns and pollsters actively engage at this moment? 

As noted, many campaigns go into hiding, stasis, or paralysis in times of national crisis, incorrectly concluding voters aren’t interested. But there is much that may still be done.  Nowhere is that more true than live-call political polling and here’s why: in circumstances at least psychologically akin to this pandemic (9/11; Desert Storm; Hurricane Katrina; Oklahoma City bombing; Challenger Shuttle; Hurricane Sandy), a form of 'civic community' kicks in, and citizens are more likely to seek available engagement. A notable example is participation in live-call surveys (and particularly since a significant majority of respondents will be 50+). This trend eventually settles back again, but it's an impressive phenomenon when it surfaces, albeit rarely.

3. Why are completion rates in political polling increasing at this time, when the trend has been the opposite? 

The fact is, respondents are very often grateful to have been contacted. Our callers have to work—gently and politely—to disengage them once the interview is completed! This usually seems counter intuitive to many clients with whom we work. But it is very real, indeed. More people are home and available, typically. There tends to be a 'we're all in this together' sentiment in play. Respondents are more gracious, thoughtful in their answers and patient. They pay closer attention to the information being posited, the choices they are asked to choose from among.

4. Will folks actually complete open-ended questions? 

Pollsters tend to disagree about this next point, but it is the rare survey we conduct that does not include at least one or two legitimate open-ended questions. These are especially valuable anytime, but especially in periods of high stress because anxious and cooped-up voters have an opportunity to express themselves in their own words! More often than pollsters like to admit, voters left to their own devices (i.e., the unstructured open-ended format) bring up issues or impressions never even guessed at by the candidate or their team, almost invariably benefiting the campaign. Open ends, when properly deployed, help us to be more efficient in our outreach, both in terms of topic and language. Completion rates rise, even with the ongoing (and necessary) appropriate screening for likelihood of voting.

5. Will the information campaigns get from political polling at this moment be strategically useful? 

Folks are home, antsy, eager to be included and to have an outlet. Meanwhile, the campaign is assembling and analyzing critical information with respect to targets, persuadable voters, and messaging that allows them to hit the ground prepared and running when crisis circumstances ease a bit and sometimes even before.  It should also be said that, in our long experience, it usually takes a bit of time for the candidate and team to discuss and internalize survey-recommended adjustments in schedule, targeting, and message (even a stump speech). Strategic and tactical insights gathered in such a manner are all the more valuable. 

6. Is there a concern that this crisis could create a lot of false trends that campaigns can’t act on? 

That's a timely and good question indeed. This is where rigor, both in design and analysis, comes into play. It's also one of the reasons we like to embed 1-2 open-ended queries, as it allows voters to let off some steam and converse, if only briefly, with a real live person somewhere in the political ether! Certainly, the survey questions, particularly as one moves down-ballot, must be designed, structured, and sequenced to guide the respondent's focus to the topics and individuals at hand, while incorporating language that stipulates and acknowledges broader concerns. Campaigns are always dynamic anyway, and it is the same with political polling. Multiple surveys with at least some benchmark/tracking timeline are always recommended. We find that when we give respondents permission, through several dedicated questions, to express themselves about whatever crisis is at hand (this was especially true after 9/11), then they can and will focus productively on those questions more immediately pertinent to the race being explored in the survey.

7. When it comes to political polling, what else can campaigns be doing at this moment to be thoughtful about campaign research and strategy? 

Maximize the information requested by the pollster with respect to the lay of the land regarding the particular venue, background on the candidates, the simplest articulation of the candidates' respective positions on issues where they are opposed, full bios, and, where affordable, detailed opposition and self-research. There are still venues where prior election returns are not gathered and/or available in the most desirable formats and scope online. Often this must be acquired locally. Be intentional about these processes and prioritize them.

Don't fall in love with conventional wisdom as purveyed by friends and family who want to make the candidate feel good. The idea, in well-crafted campaigns, is to honor voters by respecting their priorities and explaining why we are the better choice to address them. Live-call survey research, at bottom, is an efficiency tool used in political polling for deploying people, time, and money in service to a win. Demand the courtesy of candor from the pollster and equip them with the information necessary to sort out the good, the bad, and the ugly.

For campaigns that can afford it, properly deployed focus groups can be an invaluable tool, delving even deeper into the rationale and language of voter sentiment. Just be sure to bring in actual persuadable targets. Remember, regardless of the technology, sound focus groups are not projective in nature, they are qualitative.

Finally, it helps to talk to candidates and consultants who have been through crisis-context campaigns before.

Thanks again to Alan Secrest for answering our questions about political polling. Alan Secrest can be reached at secreststrategies@gmail.com