Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Informed Polling and Getting it Right

Every pollster will tell you that political polls are a snapshot in time and at best consecutive polls can elicit trends, but should not be used to predict turnout or the outcome of an election.

While the national attention is on how the pollsters got it wrong in several contests with surveys taken only days before an election, few are talking about how early surveying often-times gets things right. We've occasionally written about the importance of informed trial heats in some of our past posts.

To refresh, an informed trial heat is designed to simulate the effects of an engaged campaign, presenting balanced positive and negative messages about each candidate (or multiple candidates). 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.

F&A recently conducted a benchmark survey for a client running in a Democratic primary for open seat in a multi-candidate open-seat race. The benchmark poll was designed to evaluate the political environment, determine voter’s top issue concerns, examine opinions of the candidates and other significant figures, and test messages in support and in opposition of various candidates. As we always do in comprehensive benchmark polls, we included an informed trial heat question in the survey. The client was on a tight budget and didn't want to include "minor" candidates in the informed trial heat. After some debate, we were able to convince the client to include the "minor" candidates in the question.

We accounted for the ability of the "minor" candidates to get their message out given their budget constraints. Their messages were curtailed in the informed scenario to a simple bio-statement, while "major" candidates received bio, supporting, and opposing information, simulating an engaged campaign.

In our poll, the results of the informed trial heat were unexpected; a "minor" candidate took a 22 percentage point lead above the assumed frontrunner in the informed scenario, an increase of 25% above the candidate's level of support in the initial trial heat (the uninformed horse race question). A "major" candidate jumped up 7% and the assumed frontrunner stalled with a gain within the margin of error. Undecided voters in the initial trial heat heavily sided with one of the "minor" candidates. The percentage of undecided voters was reduced by over 40% in the informed trial heat. At this point we recognized the minor candidate's growth potential and advised the client to pay close attention to this so-called "minor" candidate. We noted that this individual clearly had the basic background and simple message that would break through the clutter of a highly engaged multi-candidate race, despite an initial perception of not being viable.

As the campaign progressed, the so called minor candidate ended up raising some serious money and gained significant earned media attention in addition to their own paid activities. It became apparent that this minor candidate was not minor, something our polling has observed only three months before the election

The "minor" candidate ended up winning this election, slightly ahead of the "major" candidate that we also observed gaining traction through the informed trial heat. This highlighted the usefulness and importance of utilizing informed trial heat questions in polls and why clients should never ignore perceived "minor" opponents. Polls that include an informed trial heat are one of the most useful strategic planning tools available to a campaign. It gives campaigns the information needed to determine if their message works (in the above example, out client’s message was not working); provides detailed strategic planning information, particularly at the demographic sub-group level, and gives campaigns information to prepare and adjust strategy for unanticipated situation (such as an unexpectedly strong opponent).

Congratulations Aubertine Campaign

Fako & Associates, Inc. congratulates Darrel Aubertine and the Aubertine campaign team for running a successful campaign that resulted in a 52.4% to 47.6% victory in New York's 48th Senate District. While some refer to the results as shocking, our strategic polling showed that victory was achievable, even with a staggering partisanship deficit of thirty thousand more Republican registrants. Congratulations goes out to the Aubertine campaign for their hard work and sticking to the strategy that lead to victory, no matter how badly the odds were stacked against them.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Open Ended & Listed Issue Concerns

Our polling and several national polls by other organizations have shown that the Iraq War is no longer the highest issue concern among likely voters. While still a major issue that could quickly rise to the top again given sufficient media attention, the War is being trumped by financial concerns about the stalling economy, foreclosures, raising taxes, and health care and prescription medicine.
"The economy, stupid"
Different Bush, different Clinton, same message... new Obama?

Is it really 1992 all over again?
"It did take a Clinton to clean (up) after the first Bush, and I think it might take a second one to clean up after the second Bush..." -- Hillary Clinton, January 31, 2008
Some seem to think so.

Carville's famed sign on the wall of the Little Rock office in 1992 also included two other important phrases:
1. "Change vs. more of the same"

2. "Don't forget health care."
While the relevance of 1992 is up for debate, we're finding that health care is becoming ever-more defined as an economic concern, and undoubtedly, an underlying component of the current feeling of economic uncertainty. According to a 2005 Harvard University study*, 68 percent of those who filed for bankruptcy in the US had health insurance. In addition, the study found that 50 percent of all bankruptcy filings were partly the result of medical expenses. Indeed, don't forget health care.

Simply talking off a bullet point isn't enough to relate to the voters. Candidates have to speak directly to the concerns of the electorate. While all challenger campaigns are inherently running on a message of "change," even if that message is never directly communicated, the nuances of the message behind their version of "change" will determine if they connect with the voters. As we've seen in the recent debates, none of the candidates were shying away from the word "Change..."

Undoubtedly the word "change" tested well.

Pollsters sometimes use listed issue concern questions instead of open-ended issue concern questions to save time (and money) in a survey. We find that listed issue questions often miss the way how issues are being discussed. While F&A, Inc. hasn't recently conducted a nation-wide survey that included a top issue concern question, some of our recent surveys in several mid-west and east coast state legislative campaigns included open-ended verbatim response questions about the voters' top issue concerns.

For example, in one of our recent surveys, a respondent offered the following when asked about his or her most important issue concern:
This response was typical of all responses that related to health care. A campaign in this district that focuses it's health care message on concerns other than making health care affordable and lowering the cost of prescription drugs will not be connecting with the concerns of the voters in this particular district.

1992 or not, candidates who speak directly to the concerns of the voters in a way that addresses their concerns will fair far better than a candidate who elaborates off a bullet point without qualified direction.

Early benchmark surveys should be as comprehensive as possible and include open-ended issue concerns whenever possible and appropriate for a campaign's budget. These types of questions help drill deeper into the how and why a voter thinks and cares about a particular issue and provides better strategic direction on how a candidate can address the issue.

In a presidential race, 1992 or 2008, there simply is no excuse for not having the message right. Regardless of the level of campaign, we always say it is better to have the message designed right the first time, than to spend the rest of the campaign correcting it.

* Himmelstein, D, E. Warren, D. Thorne, and S. Woolhander, "Illness and Injury as Contributors to Bankruptcy, " Health Affairs Web Exclusive W5-63, 02 February , 2005.