Don’t just poll – research!

Political practitioners too often see polls and focus groups as the automatic choices for political research.  Polling tells you about aggregate attitudes.  Strategic reliance on polling grew with dependence on television – a medium that used to reach most everyone and so aggregate attitudes and message receptivity made sense. 

In the internet age, the strategic balance is shifting to more targeted research and a more diverse array of message options. 

Here are some traditional research goals and some new (and old) approaches:

Exploratory research

One goal of almost any campaign is to avoid generic messaging.  If you want voters to think your candidate understands the unique problems of their region, the first step is to learn about those problems. In a national campaign, that can mean speaking to the dairy crisis in Wisconsin or the historic importance of the glass industry in Toledo. 

Local political conversation remains a basic.  Meanwhile, Google Trends can provide localized search data, voter file analysis combined with Census data can tell you the demographics and partisanship of who votes and who does not.  Sophisticated modeling like that of the Peoria Project can say a lot about people’s political attitudes and interests and the breakdown of Google affinity groups can say a lot about people’s non-political interests.   

Message Development:  The Core Argument

Review the candidate’s records against what you have learned about voters.  The core argument is almost always that your candidate will represent people’s interests and the other candidate will represent someone else – be that partisan interests, special interests, or an ideology (although most voters say philosophy) that is alien to people.  Alternatively, you can argue your opponent has a character flaw but these days a lot of voters think most politicians have character flaws, so it better be an egregious flaw.    

If you know the turf, have analyzed the available voter info, and read information on each candidate, the likely core arguments logically follow. On the presidential level, for example, Pete Buttigieg has to develop generational change as an argument. Joe Biden must run on his experience and the comfort of familiarity. Should either become the nominee, they will have different contrasts with Trump.  Already, Buttigieg articulates that we can’t continue the way we are while Biden promises a return to the balanced decency and rationalism of the recent past. Much is baked into who they are. The same is true in a local race. The candidate defines the message.

Message Development: The Media Mix 

Here’s where there are a lot of new opportunities in the internet age.  You can’t have a different core argument in different media; but you have more options for how to express the argument  than ever before.

Let’s take a congressional example:    

Your candidate is running against a Republican incumbent who has opposed funding an array of programs that would put money in this single media market district.  The district includes the city of Townville and surrounding rural counties. It tilts Republican and is predictably fiscally conservative as people figure that government money goes to someone else.

From exploratory research, you know a rural hospital is of danger of closing, local stores and the Family Dollar store have closed in small towns, and tariffs are hurting farmers, each of which can be tied to incumbent votes or statements opposing ACA, opposing online sales taxes and so helping Amazon, and supporting Trump economic policies.  The consequences, however, allow localized messaging that the incumbent has let bad things happen in the district.

You also want to make sure that voters who turn out for the presidential race in Townville vote down ballot. 

You are going to need a television ad that establishes a basic argument that your guy is going to put the people of the local area first, and not fall in with what party bosses tell him to do in Washington.  It should likely reinforce that he won’t waste their money on things that don’t help them. (It will be less generic than that because your candidate will be a person with a history and personality.)

Polling to sort through some options may be appropriate at this stage but instead of testing “message” paragraphs, you might look instead simply for what bothers people most, since your paragraphs will never translate directly to ads and can lead to swing voters terminating the poll as they get annoyed by them.

Then you have a lot to work with on specific executions that can reinforce each other as appropriate in television, mail, and online.  Start with online testing because it is easiest to do.  You are now looking at executions of varying content, but also varying tone and style.  

Message Testing

Your creative team is not limited to a 30 second format but can use a longer-form story, a metaphor, or a meme.  They can show how your candidate’s spouse has to drive farther for groceries since Family Dollar closed or how ambulance response times will increase if the hospital closes.   

As long as the ads are under the message umbrella, and sensitive to what you know from affinity group and other analyses of the district’s interests from Google, Facebook and other sources, the team can develop an array of options.

Internet ads can be self-testing.  It is easy to see what engages interest – either through clicks, viewership, or by varying search terms.  Conduct brand-lift surveys.  Such surveys are a standard for commercial advertisers – asking one question, exposing someone to an ad, and asking a follow up question later to test movement.  Brand-lift surveys can and should be conducted within affinity groups or whatever targeting scheme you will employ, or they can help you choose internet targets.

You can also design your own experiments:  If you are canvassing, expose some people to one message and others to another.  Gauge their reaction.  You can also contact them a few days later and see what they retain and how their attitudes may have changed. Add to your canvassing script what people have heard lately, and you will have another measure of what is breaking through as advertising begins.  (Don’t ask them to recall the medium – people are not very good at that.) 

The end result should be a mix of messages, measured for effectiveness within affinity groups or other online targets.  Television and mail can overlap with internet messaging and some internet messaging may stand alone as it impacts a discrete group only (like efforts to reach Democratic Presidential voters in Townville).


The final historic purpose of polls is to predict the outcome of the race.  Conduct tracking polls if you want, but they won’t guide your final resource targeting online because the sample size will be insufficient and your targets are generally behavioral not demographic.  Analysis of the canvassing stream will help as you monitor what people are hearing.  Tailored analytics can tell you whether you are above or below partisanship among people who are principally streaming online or are more traditional in their media habits, and by attitudinal groups as available.    

Currently, most analytic efforts are too divorced from campaign strategy to help but that will likely change as campaign practitioners see the broader uses for analytics and as analytics professionals are better integrated into the strategic discussions of campaigns. 

In any case, there are new tools available designed for the internet age.  Polling is not about targeted online communications. These days television alone will not reach everyone, and it misses opportunities for tailored messaging about issues that touch people’s lives.