College football kicked off earlier this month. The bands played, the fans screamed, and the players left it all on their respective fields. The start of September also marks a similar calendar for campaigns where each week counts a little more than the last.
Carrying this analogy a little further, in campaigns money might be the quarterback, but data calls the plays. You count on your QB to move the ball down the field, but if no one is there to call the plays, you’re going to find yourself punting in November.
Good research, which delivers good data, is key to crafting a successful election strategy down the stretch. So as Election Day nears and the fight for share of budget becomes a bit more contentious, here are five reasons not to lose sight of the importance of polling.
1. It actually helps conserve resources.
A well-scripted, accurate poll is a worthwhile investment that will end up saving your campaign money in the long run. It doesn’t make sense to spend thousands of dollars, or even hundreds of thousands on TV, or mail just to find out later the content was wrong, or worse: you targeted the wrong audience. Good research serves as a guide for where to spend your (limited) budget.
2. It refines your message.
Coaches know the other teams and what they do well. Good campaigns are no different. Many times candidates harp on an issue to later find out their constituents either didn’t care about that issue or, worse yet, disagreed with the candidate’s stance. In an election cycle like this one, where the electorate is as fickle as ever, knowing exactly what moves the needle is crucial.
Why talk about the economy if your voters are more concerned about gun control? If you fail to poll your race and figure out the hot button issues, you'll not only be wasting money, but you very well could be building support for your opponent.
3. It finds your blind spots.
In football, the left tackle, usually, must protect the quarterback’s blind spot. In campaigns, data helps you protect yours. You don’t know what you don’t know. We all fall victim to anecdotal evidence or believing what those around us say. Often we end up believing one thing when reality is something else.
The only way to truly known what voters think is to ask them. Yes, polling can reveal a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, but it will also help you discover how to respond when your opponent tries to exploit those weaknesses.
4. It identifies your voters.
The only people who can carry you to victory are the voters. Pundits, consultants, and "influencers" don’t really matter. What matters is how voters feel. You want voters to feel your candidate is right for the job, and for them to vote. But how do you do that?
You use polling to identify by demographic, location, issue preference, and in some cases even by name, who your likely voters are. Then you put your GOTV effort in place and move on toward victory.
5. It tracks your progress.
Your data gathering and usage shouldn’t end with a single benchmark poll. As Election Day draws near you need to see if what you're doing is working.
Are undecideds breaking your way? Has something happened to change what issues are most important? Fielding several brushfires throughout the campaign coupled with a voter ID effort toward the end will help you track your progress and make any needed adjustments.
Josh Pendergrass, a veteran political operative, is director of client strategy and General Counsel at Cygnal, a political and corporate research firm based in Montgomery, Ala.