Thursday, October 18, 2007

Components of Political Polling: The Benchmark Analysis

Campaigns need a detailed analysis that highlights the key findings of a survey and interprets the findings into usable strategic recommendations. A good analysis always goes significantly more in-depth than the "slide show" presentations that have become popular in recent years. A quality analysis provides direction, focus and discipline to a campaign.

Continuing our series on understanding political polling, we've previously discussed the components of crafting a survey and how to read crosstabs. Now, we will discuss the components that should be present in an in-depth strategic analysis of a typical comprehensive benchmark survey.

An analysis is essentially a detailed strategic playbook for a campaign in three parts. A good analysis will be one part reporting key findings, one part analysis and strategic interpretation of those findings, and another part interrelating these findings and interpretations into cohesive strategic advice.

The analysis should report the significant findings of the survey and the pollster's strategic interpretation of the data. As the report progresses, a strategy is developed as all the pieces of the puzzle come together, with a final conclusion and a detailed understanding of the candidate’s situation, dynamics of the election and a clear (or best available) path to victory.

All surveys should start with background information on the survey and other pertinent information. Sometimes campaigns will overlook this information, but it is critical so we'll take some additional time to address the importance of the 'technical stuff.'

Survey Methodology

Analysis reports for all surveys should contain a statement on methodology. The methodology statement should contain several fundamental facts about how the survey was conducted. At a minimum, the sample size, margin of error, the days the survey was conducted, if screening and/or weighting techniques were used, and how the survey was conducted should be present. It also should identify the polling firm and who commissioned the survey.

While many polling organizations are hesitant to reveal their specific scientific sample designs on reports for public release, the methodology statement should contain some insight on which sampling methods were use and their intended purpose. This gets into how a survey was conducted. This post isn't intended to discuss methodology statements, a topic we may cover another day.

Methodology statements are important to campaigns because they help address concerns over the quality and accuracy of collected research data. Unless the methodology statement ensures the statistical validity of inferences about the studied population, a survey won't earn credibility with potential donors, supporters, campaign staff or the media and should not be trusted to guide your campaign.

Survey Information / Glossaries

Most analysis reports will contain references to various demographic and attitudinal groups using terminology that may need defining because pollsters use their own terminology. Basic terms may be as simple as referring to regional classifications (ex. "This specific group of precincts represents this neighborhood..."). Slightly more complex terms may reference overall supporters and opponents or further classifications such as Weak/Strong Supporters/Opponents. The glossary should define how these groupings are arrived. Depending on the complexity of the analysis, a glossary may be defining combinations of attitudinal groups.

It also is important for surveys to identify the demographic composition of the survey, which to a degree may be accomplished in the glossary. This is important to evaluate if the survey is representative of known demographics or if it is identifying a demographic shift that older data does not reflect.

The Political Environment

The following sections deal with something we refer to as the political environment. Campaigns must accommodate for several factors not within the control (or limited control) of the campaign, but have significant impact on how the campaign must operate.

Voter Intensity

Election turnout is not predicted by political polling, but the voters' interest (intensity) in an election and trends in voting patterns are exposed through survey data. One of the goals of a benchmark survey is to determine the environment in which a campaign must operate. Benchmark surveys typically ask voters (often through a series of questions) how interested they are in participating in an election.

It's vital to know if your campaign will have to overcome a deficit of interest to energize your base or potential supporters. Gauging voter intensity among your opponents’ supporters helps to reveal the level of activity and interest in your opponent. Voter intensity can also reveal if certain attitudinal groups are likely to express their feelings through the ballot box (ex. Conservative Men list "School Taxes" as their number one issue concern and have a significantly higher level of interest in the election than the population as a whole).

This small piece of survey data is critical and can provide a lot of information related to the overall interpretation of the poll.

Partisanship & Ideology

Through demographic questions, a benchmark level survey should be able to determine variations of self-identified partisanship across the various regions, demographic and attitudinal groups in your survey. It's helpful to know where your partisan base of support is, which areas are ideologically aligned with your positions, if voters are independently minded in terms of voting, if voters revert to partisan voting with lesser known candidates, etc.

Is your opponent dependent on his or her partisan label or is there cross-over support? Is promoting your partisan label a good thing in this district or does it preclude the voters from even listening to your message? What is the partisan and ideological makeup of undecided voters and other key target groups? These questions and many others can be addressed through testing partisanship and ideology and analyzing how these factors will impact the election.

Mood of the Voters

The mood of the voters section of an analysis lends the campaign insight into how pessimistic or content the voters are feeling. The mood of the voters can be arrived at through several different types of survey questions, including the common right track / wrong track questions. The mood of the voters is a significant because, depending on their mood, the voters could be primed for messages of change, less responsive to such messages, more accepting of an incumbent's messages of accomplishment, or more likely to reject messages of accomplishment.

Through cross tabulation, your pollster should be able to tell the campaign what is the driving factor behind the mood of the voters. Sometimes the mood of the voters has little to do with how they feel about a particular elected official.

A benchmark survey also helps a campaign understand what the voters are concerned about and how the voters feel about known significant or controversial issues. Knowing what the voters are concerned about in general helps the campaign refine its communications to speak to the concerns of the voters. Having an understanding of the voters' opinions on complex issues (like immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage) can save a campaign from making disastrous decisions such as shifting the focus of a campaign’s message in a way that clashes with the voters or seeking a third party issue endorsements that alienates the candidate from the voters.

Issue Concerns

Our surveys usually include a volunteered (open-ended) most important issue concerns section, although many pollsters use a listed version of this question (which we feel provides less useful information). These questions typically reveal the macro problems that the campaign already has an awareness of, to a degree. At the micro level, the most important issue concern can expose undercurrent and developing issues and allow for micro-targeting of particular demographics which significantly express concern over a certain problem more than other voters.

It is particularly important for the issue section of the analysis to relate the voters' concerns with the messages that were tested in the survey because messages that test strong will be inherently stronger if they relate to a key concern of voters. Knowing the most important issue concerns and on which voters they have the greatest affect and how they interrelate with a candidates agenda (message) will help the campaign target persuasive messages and develop a communications plan that ties into key concerns and the candidates strongest points.

Opinions of Significant Issues

Occasionally there are significant and unique developments and issues that will have a direct effect on the election. These can include national, state, local and sometimes campaign specific issues. Pollsters do not tell candidates what their positions should be on the issues, but they can provide guidance on how to deal with the issue and how that concern may factor into the campaign.

It’s important to know what voters think about key issues in order to determine if your position is helpful or a hindrance to your campaign. Your poll can determine which demographics are likely to be "single-issue" voters though the use of issue questions and follow-up questions on voting behavior.

Reproductive freedom and stem cell research are examples of two hot button issues where a campaign needs to know if their position would make better sense as a broadcast or targeted message.

Benchmark level surveys also evaluate opinions of the candidates and other public individuals or organizations that could have an impact on the campaign. Knowing the voters' opinions of a candidate and his/her opponent lets a campaign know whether they have to focus time and money repairing image problems, defining themselves to the voters, if they can define their opponent or if the opponent is too well known, etc. Political surveys also test support for candidates in various configurations of trial heat simulations and test the campaign’s messages for persuasive value.

Opinions of Candidates and Other Public Figures

A political survey is more than just finding out who is winning and who is best known. Benchmark level surveys allow for an in-depth review of the candidates. Personal favorability and job performance ratings where an incumbent is involved are typically included in benchmark level surveys.

These items give an overall picture of where a candidate stands in the minds' of the voters. More in-depth surveys will offer a series of open-ended questions asking specifically about positive or negative aspects of either candidate. This type of questioning can prove invaluable in tight races, especially when one of the candidates is a longer-term incumbent or well known public figure.

Discovering the voter's opinion of the candidates will allow the campaign to know if a candidate has deep rooted appeal, passive support, if the voters think he/she is doing a good job and, through open ended questions, can discover nuances in opinion that can expose potential vulnerabilities or strengths.

Beyond the candidates, a campaign needs evaluate opinions of other significant public figures (or organizations). This data helps the campaign decide if it is worth expending resources to promote an endorsement, or which demographics to target information on a specific endorsement and if an opponent's public supporters can impact voting behavior.

Trial Heats and Informed Trial Heats

The horse race question is the standard-bearer for political surveys. A simple trial heat can tell you which candidate is currently leading if the election where held today and, more importantly, it can tell a campaign where and among whom each candidate is performing better and worse. The analysis of this component of the survey should detail where each candidate garners their support, how deep and strong their support is and identify each candidates' areas of weakness.

An informed trial heat is designed to simulate the effects of an engaged campaign, presenting balanced positive and negative messages about each candidate. The end result of the election scenario tells a campaign what is possible with their messages and themes they plan to implement. Most importantly, this section will determine if the core message works in direct contrast to the opponent(s)' message and can identify movement among the various demographic and attitudinal groups -- helping refine strategy.

The interpretation of this part of a survey should include detailed demographic profiles of various targets groups such as undecided voters, strong and weak supporters of the candidates, persuadable voters and any other group the pollster has identified as vital to the campaign. This section of the analysis also should highlight the key objectives of the campaign and the targets to meet those objectives. For example, the poll may identify that your Democratic candidate has significantly lower name ID and support among Democratic women than their male counterparts, so a key early base building objective of the campaign would be to raise name ID and favorable image of your candidate among this group.


It is better for the campaign to have its messages right the first time, than to spend the rest of the campaign correcting it.

A benchmark survey tests the persuasive value of a campaign's set of messages. There are various ways to accomplish this -- through contrasting statements, statement choice tests, informed ballot test and through tests of isolated issues / messages / language and other means. Benchmark level surveys typically test batteries of positive and negative messages on all candidates.

Through the analysis process, it is possible to determine which messages hold the most overall strength and, just as importantly, among which subgroups and key target groups each message is most persuasive.

With an understanding of the top issue concerns in the district, campaigns can utilize message testing to speak directly to targeted sets of voters on issues that they are most concerned. Testing messages isn’t about finding out what to say; so much as it is to find out if what the campaign plans to say is worth saying and who best to say it to. Message testing is used by campaigns to narrow down their messages to those that are both relevant and most convincing.

Campaigns can also test the value of narratives and themes the campaign is considering using. A well fitted narrative and a comprehensive theme can tie together the various policy priorities and beliefs of the candidate into a cohesive message that works for its political environment.

The analysis of the poll should: recommend the overall thematic connections for the message; suggest language that emphasizes this narrative; synthesize the message; identify what components and language are the best for the campaign to utilize; and, identify the strongest points of contrast with your opponent(s).

Analysis Conclusions and Message / Target Group Demographic Profile

We also feel that all analysis should have a conclusion that ties all the pieces together into a simple, easy to use format. This conclusion clearly needs to show the political environment, dynamics of the election, key target groups, the demographic profile and the messages that work best with these groups. We like to use a simple target and message profile chart -- basically a "reminder sheet" for the campaign team.

This summary will synthesize the more detailed and complex components of the analysis into a simple to use actionable document. It will highlight the campaign's key objectives, targets and message. This conclusion serves as a constant reminder for the strategic team of where the campaign needs focus.