As we get closer to 2020, campaigns are struggling with how to effectively gauge voter opinion and tap into popular sentiments.
Could a trending Twitter topic, or Instagram hashtag clue one into an unknown opportunity that a phone call from a pollster missed? Does a traditional survey provide the nuance necessary to see through the clouds of generic “hot takes” on Facebook?
Whoever says they have the answer won’t be proved right or wrong until 2020 plays out. For now, you need to be wary of anyone trying to sell you the definitive answer to any of these questions.
Campaigns must be prepared to commit to doing a little bit of everything to see a more accurate version of the data on voters. They need to be listening to voters through polling, what they’re saying online, what volunteers are hearing over the phones, and what the field team is learning at the doors.
There’s no doubt that campaigns need to be looking at engagement on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites. But if that is all you’re doing, you’re only getting one piece of the puzzle. A successful campaign needs to take in the data from all of the variety of sources out there and then determine what’s being said.
If your polling says one thing, and voters are saying the same thing on social media, on the phone, at the doors et cetera, then you probably have your answer on what is happening out there. But if the sources are telling you different things, the campaign needs to figure out why.
It’s not a question of which method we should use — but how many methods can we utilize to create a balanced view.
The truth is that there’s not one, secret source of information to provide campaigns with the one data set they need on voters. Over the past couple of decades, there’s been a transformation in how people receive information. Gone are the days of three sources of new information — the morning paper, car radio, and evening news.
Now, people receive up-to-the-minute updates on current events through their phone, computer, smartwatch, smart speaker, you name it. The world has changed, and it shouldn’t be shocking that campaigns need to adjust to these new realities.
In a 2017 article, PEW research found that “[a]s of August 2017, two-thirds (67%) of Americans report that they get at least some of their news on social media – with two-in-ten doing so often, according to a  survey from Pew Research Center.” The growing shift towards receiving news on platforms where people can immediately respond has drastically changed people’s management of opinions and thoughts and their ability to make those opinions known.
These changes have been a challenge for polling data that focuses on numbers that can, and do, change over short periods of time. For example, candidate favorabilities and horse race numbers, compared to more longer-term opinions that tend to shift much more slowly (views on the role of government, climate change, choice et cetera). Even with multiple methods of polling, such as online, phone, and even information the campaigns receive door-to-door, most tend to miss the quick shifts in opinion that the rapidity of information access has introduced.
But let’s not view polling as dead.
These quicker shifts in opinion are often less important for the campaign in the longer term, and a campaign that’s reacting only to the hourly shifts is going to run themselves in circles quickly. Polling is much better in understanding the long view and determining the overall path the campaign should take. Said in another way, polling can help you win the war, while social media listening helps win the battles.
Since social media is often where people get the by-the-minute news that leads to quicker changes in opinion, it’s not shocking that moods can shift quickly. This becomes especially important to your digital consultant whose ads are going to change much quicker than what you may put up on TV.
Social media listening is a useful and important tool to ascertain the short term shifts, but it can also turn in to a double-edged sword. As mentioned, social media better lends itself to more quickly providing data from newly broken news or developments as opposed to polling whose methods take considerably more time. It also can provide larger-scale data considering about 72% of American adults used one social media service as of February 2019. But simply looking at large reactions and buzz on Twitter isn’t a comprehensive understanding of the voter universe at large.
Indeed, although more than 7-in-10 American adults use at least one social media service, this doesn’t imply that they all are actively posting and responding on said social media site. In a 2016 Pew article, during the height of the elections being broadcast on social spaces, only 20 percent of Americans using social media enjoyed seeing posts or discussions related to politics.
Furthermore, those who are politically active on social media usually are following and reposting content creators who share their views According to PEW, just 31 percent of people follow others of a mixed bag of views and only 3 percent follow those who hold opposite views. Those who are politically inclined on social media are normally only politically inclined towards interacting with views like their own.
Moreover, in the same report, Pew found that “Compared to those with lower levels of political engagement, highly-engaged social media users take a fairly active role when it comes to entering into political discussions or otherwise engaging with political content.” More politically inclined people, and therefore the more partisan people, are the ones who are most inclined to post on social media and therefore be heard by social media listeners.
Still, there are many who would herald social media as a full replacement for polling and the only tool needed. This is a dangerous mindset and will likely eliminate the key information that polling still provides from reaching the campaign. Usually, anyone selling social media listening as the only answer is selling their product and nothing more. In fact, the same is true for any pollster who scoffs at social media listening.
If campaigns want to get an edge up in this changing world of information, they must be prepared to commit to doing a little bit of everything, even if it costs more. At the end of the day the question really should be, can you afford to not understand what’s happening?
Stefan Hankin is the founder of Lincoln Park Strategies.