Political Pollsters: Making the Most of Your Polling

by Elena Veatch

A person's outline and question marks drawn on blackboard with chalk

Pollsters- How To Work With Them & Be a Smart Consumer of Polling 

Pollsters shouldn’t be the only members of your team who understand how to build an effective survey for your advocacy or political campaign. Becoming a smart consumer of campaign polling data is a must.  this post will help you ask pollsters thoughtful questions. Good polling will help you utilize your budget efficiently, think strategically about your goals, and assess risks and opportunities in your electoral landscape.

A good campaign pollster will understand your goals, be honest about limitations and trade-offs, and make recommendations to harness data effectively. That said, no matter how good your pollster is, you should do your homework and come to the table with a basic understanding of how surveys work. Walk through our tips below to better engage your pollsters and make the most of your survey data.

Have a goal. Before you approach political pollsters, you should have a clear sense of what you want to get out of a survey. Do you want to gauge responses to various messaging approaches for a long-term messaging campaign? Are you looking to measure the salience of attacks on your candidate and their opponent at a couple different points during the campaign? Are you interested in figuring out the best area of a state to spend your paid communications budget? The clearer you can articulate your goal, the better your pollster will be able to design a survey that gets you the information you want.

Keep it short. While having an abundance of information is nice, focus on identifying the information you need. Prioritize the survey questions that you care most about and nix the stragglers. Having an organized, concise survey will save you money, improve survey response rates, and ensure you’re gleaning actionable data.

Prioritize sample size over survey length. Increasing your sample size and extending the length of your survey are separate factors that will increase your polling budget, but the former approach will typically yield greater benefits than the latter. It’s more useful to ask a handful of questions to a large group of people than it is to float dozens of questions to a tiny group. The larger your survey sample size is, the likelier it is that your data will be accurate and representative. Ask your pollsters questions about sample size and survey length to understand trade-offs as you’re finalizing your survey.

Know who you’re talking to. Capturing public opinion among a representative sample is challenging. To ensure that polling data will accurately reflect your campaign’s target audience, it’s important to talk to your pollsters about who you most want to hear from. The right sample can make the difference between cultivating accurate, useful information and data that never sees the light of day in your campaign strategy. Good pollsters will work with you to think through likely turnout in an election and other factors for advocacy campaigns. They’ll ask you questions and care about getting the sample composition right, and you should ask questions in return to ensure you’re on the same page. Here are some examples of questions you might ask your pollsters:

  • How many people will be surveyed? Do you feel confident that we’ll get actionable information with this sample size?
  • If I want to conduct several polls with my budget, what is the smallest sample size that will yield useful data? What are the downsides of doing several rounds of polling?
  • What proportion of the sample can I expect to be women?
  • I care about knowing how people of color respond to these questions. Can you talk to me about what I can expect to learn about these voters from this survey and what limitations I should be aware of in harnessing these results?

Go beyond IVR. While automated IVR polls are fairly cheap to conduct, they are not always accurate. We appreciate the simplicity of IVR polling but implore you to beware of its limitations. IVR polls rely on landline phones for data collection, so this method may only help you reach older voters. With so many folks relying on cell phones rather than landlines these days, keep in mind that you might not be reaching a representative or large enough sample through IVR.

Embrace hybrid polls. Many polls employ a hybrid mode, drawing upon cell phones, landlines, and online sources to reach respondents. This helps cultivate sample sizes that are large and representative enough of the people you’re trying to reach. 

Don’t shy away from sharing information. Keep in mind that you may have a better sense than your pollsters of how people in your community interact and find information. If you’re commissioning a poll in a rural area where broadband access is limited, don’t be afraid to express your concerns about reaching a representative sample. The more context you’re able to share, the better job your pollsters will do in designing an effective survey.

Know your opposition. Opposition research can help identify positive and negative messages to test about your opponent. Be sure to fact check before you test a message about your opponent’s record. What’s more, look to test messages that will help you create a strong contrast with your opponent.

Know yourself. A poll is also a great way to explore your own negatives. If you know you have a potential vulnerability (a controversial past vote, a local news story that didn’t make you look great, etc.), include it in your survey to see how voters react. This way, you can be prepared to inoculate against attacks. 

Do a message box. Before you conduct a survey, it’s helpful to do a message box exercise. Think about what you will say about yourself in the campaign, versus what your opponent will say about you. Similarly, consider what your opponent will say about themselves, versus how they will portray you. Once you have your poll results, adjust your message box accordingly.

Avoid errors in your survey prose. Make sure your final survey is error-free before it goes into the field. If a survey is riddled with errors, it can impact the accuracy of respondents’ answers. Clean survey questions will help ensure that the messenger isn’t stumbling over your words.

Input helps. Get input from your team before your poll goes into the field to make sure everyone is on the same page about goals and messaging strategy. That said, make sure you have a clear process for feedback and decision making—otherwise, you may get stuck in an endless feedback loop and hit unnecessary delays.

Don’t rush. Take the time to get your survey right. If you have breathing room, take the time to do your research, identify targets, and develop a thoughtful survey with your pollsters that will capture data that will help your campaign. Just don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

Know when to defer to the experts. Be an active part of the polling process but remember that you’ve hired pollsters for a reason. A good pollster will be a partner in using their expertise to help you achieve your goals. Ask thoughtful questions but trust the process so your pollsters can design a survey that will help plot out your roadmap to victory.

Do you have additional questions about finding or working with pollsters? Reach out to us!