Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Components of Crafting a Survey

Most successful endeavors require prior planning; a successful political survey is no exception. The quality of your survey is dependent upon the value of the information gathered before it is crafted. There are generally seven research components needed to develop a strategic survey. We will briefly outline these criteria, explain their significance in surveying, and simultaneously review the various components that should be present in a good benchmark level survey.

A benchmark survey is a comprehensive evaluation of the election dynamics, candidates and issues. They are used to develop your strategy and message. They serve as your campaign's tactical guide and strategic "play book." Benchmark surveys usually are 15 - 20 minutes in length, or longer. It should be as comprehensive as your budget allows.

Unlike like Stephen Colbert’s interviews in his Better Know a District series, you have to have a basic understanding about the region where you will be polling.

What’s the population? How would you describe the various areas within where you want to poll? What are the characteristic’s of the area’s economy? Does the area have a unique history?

Population and voter registration data help determine the polling sample size needed to efficiently and conduct a statistically accurate survey. All political surveys should have multiple regions that represent something usable to your campaign. The regions that get established for your survey have to be significant for your campaign.

Is the West end of town mostly town homes? Is there a significant minority concentration on one side of town? Are there a handful of distinct townships within the region to be polled? Are these groups of precincts representative of a higher-income area? Are these groups of precincts virtually not walkable by the candidate or volunteers?

Questions like these should be asked when developing regions and the list of demographic classifications that you will find useful to have in your survey (such as any combination of gender, race, income, education, union status, political ideology, party ID, etc). Members of your campaign need to be able to look at your survey analysis and quickly determine what’s happening, among whom, and where.

Knowing population data (and vote share information) will help you determine what percentage of the vote each region represents. The campaign should work with the pollster (if needed) to find the projected turnout for the district and your winning 50% plus 1 number. Knowing where the vote is coming from and the opinion of voters in the various regions can help not only focus your campaign’s message, but also help in the allocation of the campaign’s budget.

Answering preliminary questions about the area you plan on surveying establishes the background to keep in mind throughout the survey process. Knowing a little about the district’s personality serves as a guide through the survey data collection process and makes it easier to spot any potential abnormalities early on.

When crafting a campaign, you also need the key players within the district.

Are there key officials, public figures or private individuals who would have an interest or impact on the campaign? Would an endorsement from a certain official be a help or hindrance? Is it worth spending campaign time and money to promote a particular endorsement? Will campaigning or sharing resources with another candidate hurt or help my campaign?

A proficient benchmark survey will test the personal favorability ratings of people who are of an interest to the campaign. Knowing if someone holds significant substantive recognition ratings and if they are viewed positively or negatively will help determine if valuable campaign resources should be expended in seeking or promoting endorsements and/or affiliations.

If public officials are being tested in the survey, their job performance ratings are usually also tested. When in the position of a challenger, the job performance rating and personal favorability of the incumbent is always tested. Incumbents should test their own favorability and performance ratings to help reveal any underlying potential weaknesses.

Job performance and personal favorability weaknesses oftentimes will reveal weaknesses that aren’t apparent in the benchmark survey's trial heat of candidates or issues. Sometimes voters will lean towards a known and disliked incumbent over an unknown challenger. For example, voters who responded that they are “weak supporters” in a trial heat question filtered into a group that show weak intensity toward a candidate personally or in their job performance rating through cross tabulation reports. It’s possible to narrow down the demographic list of voters that should be targeted by the campaign in this way through a variety of response position combinations.

Classifying groups of voters based on their support and feelings toward candidates or issues is not so useful in itself, but knowing what strategic message to communicate to target groups to achieve a desired effect completes the purpose of the survey.

Detailed background information on the candidates or issues must thoroughly be reviewed, prioritized and incorporated into the survey. This information could contain both helpful and damaging information. Depending on the budget of a campaign, this type of information will contain variations of the following: summaries of public records (tax liens, lawsuits, etc.), news clipping, issue positions, campaign finances, endorsements, other court/judicial records, interviews, tax records, voting records and other vital documents.

This information gathering process is called Opposition Research (aka OR, Oppo) and Vulnerability Research (research about yourself or the campaign issue). They are critical components that must be completed before a survey is crafted. There are several reputable information gathering firms who specialize in generating detailed strategic OR reports. Lower budget campaigns can conduct their own baseline research, but they need to be careful about allowing volunteers gather OR information, especially in candidate campaigns where zealous volunteers may not be diligent on fact-checking.

Opposition research has received a bad name in recent years (Negative attacks, "Swift Boating,"etc.), but OR itself is not inherently harmful to the democratic process. The ethics of OR is a discussion for a different posting, but remembered that the information tested in a survey is always left to the discretion of the pollster and the campaign. A good pollster will lend you his or her experience and guidance on whether to test controversial information and advise your campaign on utility of the information and the repercussions that could occur.

Along with knowing information about opponents, you or your issue, and, details about the area to be polled, it’s also important to understand all major or pertinent issues that may affect the campaign, including local issues. Polling allows you to test voter's opinions on important known issues.

Is a big-box retailer petitioning to move into town? Will reproductive freedom be a wedge issue brought into the campaign by your opponent? Is there a statewide debate brewing about same-sex marriage, or funding stem cell research?

Conducting a political survey about important issues will reveal not only the opinion of voters, but also the intensity they feel towards issues. You’ve probably heard the expression of a "poll driven politician," your campaign doesn’t want that association. Polling should not be used to determine your (or your campaign’s) issue positions, but rather it should help you develop an approach to talking about an issue (or whether to talk about an issue), discover natural allies (demographically, regionally), and, refine your approach in how your campaign communicates its messages about the issues.

Not every issue will be known by your campaign. A good benchmark survey will incorporate an open ended question early on to directly ask the voters what issue or problem they are most concerned about. Often times this question will reveal issues which your campaign is already aware, but open ended verbatim responses also reveal how issues are being discussed and lend insight to why voters feel the way they do. This form of open ended questioning sometimes reveals upcoming issues that haven’t boiled to the surface.

Knowing where voters stand on the issues will help refine your message. A benchmark survey can test the persuasive value of the potential arguments in support of your campaign and the arguments against your opponent(s). Testing messages isn’t so much about finding out what attacks stick against your opponent, but rather discovering which of messages hold the most persuasive value and most correlate to the concerns of the voters. Your campaign needs to speak to the concerns of the voters, testing messages through a benchmark poll keeps a campaign on target by speaking to the issues with messages that resonate with the voters.

This primer on the components of a benchmark survey is meant to familiarize information seekers on the formation process of a political benchmark survey. While in no way would we consider this discussion comprehensive, it has hopefully answered some preliminary questions about planning for a political poll. Benchmark polls should be conducted as early as possible in a campaign. To summarize, a benchmark poll’s purpose is to get the strategy and message correct early in the campaign, rather than spending the rest of the campaign fixing it.

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