Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Two common mistakes that cost local campaigns their elections.

Campaigns outside of major population centers, lower budget and local campaigns often rule out conducting strategic opinion surveys for two reasons: they think they can't afford a strategic survey and the candidate and/or staff believes they know the city or district where they are asking for votes. These mistakes set up local and lower budget campaigns for failure.

While having a comprehensive survey that allows for an in-depth evaluation of the election dynamics and gauging voters' philosophical outlook would benefit any campaign, that level of information is not necessary to develop a winning strategy for a campaign that will likely be driven by direct voter contact (field campaigning) and direct mail.

A poll, regardless of size and length, should be designed to develop a strategy. As we've discussed previously on this blog, the cost of polling is arrived at primarily though the number of interviews conducted and the length of the survey (in minutes, not necessarily the number of questions). Even a shorter poll can highlight the persuasive winning arguments and expose the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. A modest poll doesn't mean you are only going to find out who is winning, losing and better known… All polls are about developing and refining strategies that maximize the use of a campaign's finite resources.

Localized races like District Attorney, County Board, and Alderman and Mayor (in smaller cities) can make use of smaller sample sizes (depending on the size of the voting population) and shorter surveys that last 5 to 10 minutes. Surveys of this scope can accurately evaluate the opinions of the candidates and other public figures, test the strength of support for the candidates, identify key targets, and test a limited number of messages for the campaign while not breaking the campaign's budget.

One of the main objectives of a lower budget campaign in seeking polling should be to find the message(s) that have the widest appeal to the largest amount of voters and niche messages that are targetable to subgroups of appropriate scope.

When determining which messages tend to work better with certain subgroups, it may not be possible to determine with high statistical accuracy that a particular message works better with a very specific, micro-targeted subgroup in poll with a small sample size. Larger and more practically targeted subgroups will allow for a statistically reliable reading of which message is most persuasive among broader subgroups and the sub-set will be useful and practical for your direct mail and field campaign budget.

To give an example on targeting for a lower budget campaign, let's assume the campaign's survey reveals that your candidate has weaker support among younger women. Generally speaking, it is more effective for a lower budget campaign to use a more practical, broader direct mail targeting criteria (such as "women under 50" instead of "Women 18-25 in households with children with net income over 100K") and deliver a message that tests well among many voters within a broader subgroup. Distributing your best messages to the largest amount of voters as possible is vital because campaigns at the local level already are dealing with a small numbers of voters, are lower profile, gather less earned media, and the candidates are typically less known and get less attention than other higher profile campaigns.

An experienced polling company should be able to evaluate the messages your campaign wants to test and help you refine them in a way that will maximize the quality of the data your survey will provide. Subgroup analysis to determine message targeting is still possible with smaller sample sizes, even with the inherently higher margin of error that a smaller sample size brings. The bottom line is that a campaign shouldn't spend money for a survey that provides data that the campaign’s budget won't allow it to use.

The other common mistake of lower budget and local campaigns is assuming a level of knowledge about the voters, their concerns, and what messages will work for their campaign. While it is possible to knock on every door in a smaller city or county, it is impossible for a candidate or campaign to gather the type of information that is revealed by a random sample survey of likely voters. Even the briefest of political polls will screen for likely Election Day voters and sample the electorate in proportion to the predicted Election Day turnout. The screening process helps to ensure that the opinions reflected in the survey are those of voters who will likely participate in and ultimately decide the outcome of the election. The response campaigns receive from activists, supporters, and voters at the door do not generally represent or generalize to the opinion of all those who are likely to cast their ballot on Election Day. Polling provides vital strategic data to compliment the anecdotal information that your campaign will receive.

Getting wrapped up in the cost of political polling and the need for full-blown, multiple micro-targeted direct mail campaign often reinforces the belief among candidates and their staff that their campaign doesn't need strategic research to understand their electorate. The reality is that lower budget and local campaigns can rarely afford to go into an election without the research that a basic survey can provide. Good information is the foundation of a successful campaign strategy. Thinking that political polling is too expensive and that they know their electorate well enough cost campaigns their elections.

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