Focusing Your Campaign through Polling & Focus Groups

Originally posted on and written by Paul M. Fallon

This article originally appeared in Winning Campaigns Magazine.

When every fledgling campaign comes into existence, it soon realizes two important things.  First, the opposing campaign is not the only competition it faces, and second, that having the best qualified candidate doesn’t guarantee success.  The primary reasons for both phenomena are essentially the same:  it is getting more difficult to reach people.    As a result, sometimes the campaign that wins isn’t always the one with the best candidate, but is the one with the best message and strategy for communicating it!  

Precious dollars, which are getting harder to raise because of more restrictive campaign finance limits, and fragmentation, which has created too many media sources and too little concentration on a single medium or network, both require that successful campaigns be able to precisely identify their target audiences, and the messages that are most suitable for them.  Fragmentation has become a particularly vexing problem that most campaigns fail to recognize as a second form of competition – one that can thwart a campaigns strategy more insidiously and effectively than the opposing campaign!   Consequently, campaigns are focusing more resources on fewer messages, in order to repetitively communicate them enough to reach and be remembered by voters. 

As todays campaigns are being waged in the information age, the nature and prevalence of opinion research and polling has changed.  Once considered a staple only in multimillion dollar U.S. Senate and gubernatorial campaigns, it is now becoming a common fixture in races at all levels of government.  Without opinion research, many campaigns succumb to the mistake of spending resources talking to the wrong audiences, and, worst of all, touting the wrong messages or candidate virtues. 

There is no doubt that polling — typically, but not always, done through telephone surveys — is the cornerstone of political opinion research.  This is because of its utility as a tool for targeting and planning.  Polling does 3 important things for a campaign. 

First, it can tell a candidate where his or her race stands at the beginning of a campaign, and how much support he or she has among various demographic sub-groups. 

Second, it can test various messages, candidate strengths and policy initiatives to determine which ones are the most effective at swaying undecided voters, without destabilizing a candidates current base vote. 

Third, it can assess the political environment to insure that the tone of the advertising is compatible with the state of mind of the electorate.  No doubt everyone has seen a campaign or two that tried to use a theme that just didnt fit the circumstances, such as decrying corruption and mismanagement when the vast majority of voters thought a public office or community was generally moving in the right direction and being pretty well run. 

Interestingly, although polling has long been the primary means of gathering data for political opinion research, many campaigns have come to use focus groups because of the valuable role that they can play in developing and fine-tuning surveys. 

One of the weaknesses of surveys is that they tend to serve as a tool to validate the campaign or candidates views of the conventional wisdom.  Survey questions are based on the information that the campaign and candidate want to test, and, therefore, surveys make assumptions about the topics of importance.  The obvious problem is that these assumptions are not always correct ones.  Consequently, the surveys end up being crafted in such a way that they only give respondents an opportunity to express opinions about the issues included in them.  This creates an element of bias.  

Guided by a moderator with a loose agenda of topics, focus groups are semi-structured meetings that allow for free flowing discussions in which select types of voters can talk about relevant issues and matters that are of greatest importance to them.  This is invaluable in formulating survey questions, because the information gathered from focus groups can reconcile the chasm that sometimes exists between candidates expectations about the survey priorities, and the actual interests and concerns of voters. 

For example, a focus group of undecided voters could provide insight into the reasons that they might vote for a candidate (important because it may stimulate thinking about new message strategies that have not yet been considered), and the value of prospective appeals (much like market testing).  It could also provide an opportunity to test communications, such as direct mail or television commercials, to insure that they will have the intended impact.

The lesson here is that, although voter opinion research can appear to be a very substantial line item expenditure in any campaigns budget — admittedly, it is — campaigns and candidates at all levels are finding out this it is one that can be repaid many times over in terms of its ability to make communications more cost-efficient and more effective.

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