Regardless of what they say in public, politicians need (and jump on) surveys like a junkie needs heroin. When I talk with clients, I am nevertheless often surprised about the prejudices regarding public opinion research, hence why in this post, we will clear up some of the basics.
Every serious election campaign should start with a baseline survey. Period. (When I say serious campaign, I mean a campaign with a budget of more than half a million dollars). There are candidates who delay taking a survey mostly because they are afraid of seeing the numbers. They want to do something first before getting a survey. This is the equivalent of a pilot saying that he doesn’t need the navigation system to take off and will just turn it on once he’s up in the air and doesn’t know anymore where he is. Good luck with that!
I also find it funny when people say that they “believe in surveys.” It’s not a question of belief, but of knowing what surveys can and cannot teach you, how to read them, how to distinguish professional from sloppy ones and how to use them as a basis for an election, referendum or public affairs campaign.
Surveys that are published in the media often focus on the so-called “horse race”. In a parliamentary system, they would for example ask what we call the “Sunday question”: If the election were this Sunday, what party would win? The way we use surveys in campaigns has a different purpose, namely, to serve as a basis to make informed decisions. In that sense, surveys can show you name recall, where the race stands, maybe test different possible scenarios, the impact of running mates, and ultimately help make a decision whether or not to run. They can assess strengths and weaknesses of the various candidates, define low-hanging fruits and show opinions of voters on the main issues. The results then serve as a basis for the campaign communication, message, timing, positioning, and spending (media buy).
In the U.S., I learned that as a rule of thumb, it makes sense to allocate between 10% – 15% of the overall campaign budget to public opinion research. In a presidential campaign, this can mean daily tracking. In a local campaign and if resources are really scarce, this can mean one or two surveys. Also keep in mind that surveys are never a prediction of election results. In fact, an early lead may reflect an awareness advantage, that will melt away fast once the campaign kicks in.