Polling for the Party: How Public Opinion Influences Political Strategy

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Polling is a powerful and important tool that political parties use to understand how the public perceives candidates, issues, or other important matters that can affect the outcome of an election.  However, the research that political parties conduct, known as internal polling, is rarely released to the public and is shroud with mystery.  The aim of this article is to remove some of the fog of war surrounding the topic of internal polling and provide readers with some insight as to how internal polling works.

I was fortunate enough to interview John Corbett CMRP, FRSS of Corbett Communications to learn more about how political parties use polling and research to help shape their playbook.  John has worked for a number of political parties and has decades of experience within the world of polling and market research.  Below, the reader will find my interview with John that took place on May 13th, 2015.

Adrian: So let’s begin with a rather simple question: what exactly is internal polling?

John: It’s the polling a party does to see how some candidate is doing and how the other candidates are doing.  It doesn’t share it with the public except in extreme circumstances.  It’s usually done by a trusted party pollster whose been doing it for a long time.  That’s the only way it really differs from regular polling: it tends to be done with a lot more rigour and it’s done internally, it’s not shared with the public.

Adrian: What is an example of something that a party would really want to know?  Alternatively, what is an example of something a party just couldn’t be bothered with?

John: Well, they obviously want to keep an eye on the horse-race but they aren’t really too interested in that.  They know that their success at the ballot box is not going to be measured in their polls but their Get-Out-The-Vote effort.  So they tend to be very interested in issues – issues that are being debated, they’ll be very interested in how a candidate did at a debate or after a debate, and they’re very interested in what are the doorstep issues that people want to discuss.  They use polling to craft the message.

Adrian: How often do political parties use polling as a means to develop policy platforms or communications strategies?

John: All the time.

Adrian: From your experiences, is there an increase in this type of polling in an election year or are these topics being polled on a continuing basis?

John: From what I know, parties will keep their toes in the water in-between elections but they don’t really ramp up the polling because it’s costly.  It’s not inexpensive and they’re polling every night during an election campaign.  So they tend to start off about a month before they think the writ is going to drop, or you know in the case of a snap election the moment the writ drops and continue till the end of the campaign period.

Adrian: Is there a significant difference in a pollster’s workload in an election year as opposed to half-way through a majority government?

John: Oh god yes! Election years are like Christmas, New Years, and Easter all rolled up into one!

Adrian: How does your workload differ when you’re working for a party that is in opposition as opposed to when you’re working for the party that has formed government?

John: There’s really not much difference.  They still want to know what people think of the doorstep issues.  You still want to know whether your message is getting out and whether it’s being heard.  In a campaign situation, a lot of what you’re doing is not actually polling – it’s voter identification.  A lot of it is “Are you planning to vote for us, sir?  Thank you very much.  Add him to the database”.  So a lot of that goes on as well but it doesn’t really matter if you’re polling for the government or the opposition.  It’s basically the same principle.

Adrian: When a political party puts a research team together, do they tend to hire individual consultants or are they more likely to hire a firm to conduct their research?

John: Well, the infrastructure necessary to do the volume of work that they are calling on really only belongs to a couple of large firms.  There’s not that many people who can supply the work.

Adrian: What do parties look for when they hire pollsters – is there a lot of politics involved?

John: There’s a certain amount of politics involved.  There are pollsters who have worked for one party longer than another party.  But really what you’re looking for is accuracy and the quality of the work that they deliver.  Quality control in the phone room and accuracy of the poll results – rigid quality control.

Adrian: When would you want to conduct qualitative research and when would you want to conduct quantitative research?

John: You might conduct some focus groups at the beginning of a campaign or in the middle of your mandate.  If you’re the government you’re probably conducting focus groups pretty regularly.  But once it gets down to the nitty-gritty of the campaign you really don’t have time for that, you’re doing quantitative polling every night.

Adrian: How often do party-pollsters pay attention to publicly released polls or the polls that you see in the media?

John: Not much.  They really rely on their internal polling.

Adrian: Each party will have a different budget for polling and research based on how much money they have in their war chest, but what are you able to tell us about the resources available when working for a party as opposed to a corporate client?  By that I mean do parties ask pollsters to do more with less?

John: Oh god yes.  And then it’s always tough getting paid.  Even if you win you know, you have to be very careful to get at least a big portion of your payment up front because once the campaign is over you might as well join the line – you’re just another creditor.

Adrian: What are some examples of the hiccups or problems that a party-pollster might have to deal with when working for a political party?  Here’s an example of what I mean by that: has there ever been a situation where a party thinks they have a good policy or strategy from their research and it turns out to be a flop or even backfires?

John: It happens a lot, you know.  In the US the perfect example would be Mark Penn of Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates.  He liked to impose his own values on the subjects he was polling and it led to some disastrous results for the people he worked for.

Adrian: So I use this term loosely but the ‘inherent biases’ of the pollster influenced their performance?

John: Yeah.  Some party pollsters think they’re stars, you know?  They think they’re policy makers.  They’re not.  You know they’re measuring guys, they’re not policy makers.  And the ones who think they are (policy makers) can often get in the way.  Not so much so in Canada.

Adrian: In some elections, we’ve seen political parties disclose or ‘leak’ some of their internal polling data.  We saw this with the CAQ in the most recent Quebec election.  Why or when would a party do this?  Is it a wise strategy?

John: No, it’s never smart because no one pays attention to internal polling.  Everyone knows that if the polling has been leaked it’s because there’s some kind of spin the party wants to put on it.  It’s usually a move of desperation.  The party that is leaking their internal polling is either hoping to gain the result or isn’t doing very well and is hoping to get something remotely possible.  It really has nothing to do with what you’re doing – that’s not your audience.

Adrian: Besides things like cross-tabulations, what are some examples of the statistical or analytical tools a pollster would use when performing quantitative research for a party?

John: I’m not really the guy to ask about that, I’m more the issues guy.  You know, you would use factor analysis, because if you had a number of different factors and you wanted to build the best possible combination without testing them all you use factor analysis.  You might use cluster analysis, segmentation analysis to do a segmentation of the voters and look at them by stereotypes – voter stereotypes.  Things like that.  There are more sophisticated methods than that but like I said that’s not my specialty.

Adrian: How often would a political party poll their base as opposed to the public at large?

John: All the time.  Both, all the time.  Certainly from the moment the writ is dropped they’re in the field every night.

Adrian: Besides maybe during a by-election, how often would a political party conduct constituency-level polling?

John: Quite a lot.  They’ll supply a certain amount of support for riding associations to do polling.  They do that quite a lot.  But Get-Out-The-Vote polling is a form of riding polling.

Adrian: From your time spent in the industry, how has internal polling changed over the years?  What are parties looking at now that they weren’t looking at 5 or 10 years ago?  Has technology changed the way parties conduct research?

John: Well, they’re not using online polling that’s for sure.  The people who vote don’t tend to be the people who are online.  They do recognize that response rates are going down and they’re going to have to deal with that.  I’ve heard a couple of people I know in the industry talking about returning to door-to-door polling because of the low response rates on telephones.  I’m not suggesting anyone is going to be doing door-to-door polling in the near future.  But the thing is they don’t use online panels because they aren’t random, they’re not statistically reliable and that’s why telephone polling is always going to be what you get from the party.

Adrian Macaulay is President of Delphi Polling & Consulting Inc. and blogs at Within The Margin.
Follow Adrian on twitter: @djsamplingerror


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