For Strategists Polls Do Matter


The old saying about “the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day” is actually only partially true.

Other polls matter too; they matter a lot.

I’m talking about “internal” opinion polls, meaning those polls which the major political parties commission on a regular basis to plot and fine tune their communication strategies.

Indeed, internal polls help determine just about everything in politics, from what kind of political ads you’ll see on TV to what kind of policies a political party will promote.

And believe me, such internal polls are a much different breed of animal than the public opinion polls which are routinely splashed all over the news media.

How are they different?

Well, one big difference is money.

Pollsters producing public opinion polls, which are often provided free of charge to the media, will sometimes cut corners to save money and this could negatively impact a poll’s quality and reliability.

In fact, this is one reason why public opinion poll predictions are sometimes spectacularly wrong.

On the other hand, pollsters get a lot of money from political parties to conduct internal polls, which means they have a huge financial incentive to get their numbers right.

The second difference is that public polls typically focus on the “horse race” aspect of politics: who is ahead, who is behind, who will win, who will lose.

Journalists, of course, like this kind of information because it provides data which they can weave into their political reporting and commentary.

We see this weaving happening right now in the wake of recent public polling data indicating there’s a surge of support for the NDP.

Suddenly pundits and columnists are rushing out theories in print and on television, to explain why the NDP is gaining or why the Liberals are losing or why the Conservatives have no traction.

But if you’re a political party strategist those horse race numbers are not really all that relevant because they offer only a superficial glimpse of actual voter attitudes.

To get a fuller, more accurate understanding of what voters are really thinking requires a deeper, more thorough analysis.

Internal polls provide that analysis by asking the right kinds of questions, to the right kind of demographics, to compile the right kind of data.

For instance, it’s possible a pollster might discover that while NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is gaining in popularity, many Canadians might also harbor serious reservations about NDP policies.

This means, regardless of what the public polls say, the NDP’s support might actually be soft; it also means the NDP might drop in the polls once the party’s policies are aggressively linked to Mulcair.

Hence, a pollster working for the Conservatives might recommend the party start running TV ads warning about Mulcair’s “scary, left-wing agenda.”

The other thing a good internal poll will do is to look for hidden trends, such as tracking the attitudes of “undecided” voters.

If a pollster discovers that when undecided voters in key demographics make up their mind, they are more likely to side with the NDP, it means the NDP might actually be in a much stronger position than public polls indicate.

Such information would, needless to say, influence the tactics of both the Liberals and Conservatives.

The bottom line is that internal polling isn’t about finding out which party is “winning”, it’s about helping a political party find a path to victory.

So the next time a polling company asks for your political views, you should be thrilled.

It means, for once, at least one political party out there really does care about what you think.

(This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.)


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