Many of us on the supplier side of the market research industry had our original interest in this field kindled by political polling. The market research industry was largely established as a by-product of polling. It didn’t take the founding fathers of election polling long to realize that, during a time of massive expansion of the US economy in the post WWII era, there was money to be made by polling for companies and brands.
In some ways polling has become more important than the election itself. In 2000 Elizabeth Dole was touted by many as a potential Republican candidate. While many knew her only as the wife of Bob Dole, she seemed to have a lot going for her. She had been Secretary of Labor, head of the Red Cross, was well-spoken, and seemed poised to become the perhaps the first woman with a realistic shot at the White House. She was seen as a viable candidate by most pundits.
But, polls conducted before any primaries had been contested indicated that her support level was low, largely because she was unknown. As a consequence of a poor showing in early polls, she stumbled in fundraising and pulled out of the race without a voter ever having a chance to vote for or against her. Had the initial polls never been taken, she likely would have had enough fundraising support to enter the initial primaries. As she was an excellent communicator, who knows where it might have gone from there.
This made me wonder what the value of early polling is. It certainly seems to limit the viability of lesser-known candidates. I doubt that if the polling environment in 1992 was as it is today if Bill Clinton would have had the chance to emerge as a contender.
As we turn to the current race, on the Republican side there soon could be as many as a dozen declared candidates, and some are predicting up to 20. Fundraising success will become the first screen to winnow the field. And, early poll results will directly affect their ability to fundraise. I believe this is why Jeb Bush has been late to declare his candidacy. He has had an incredible level of success raising money, and once he declares the pollsters will start assessing his viability. He’s best off continuing to fundraise without becoming a declared candidate as declaring probably runs a risk for him.
Further, both Fox and CNN have recently announced that they will only include the top 10 candidates in the first Republican debates. How will they winnow the field? By looking at polling data.
Should we worry that the polling industry has too much say in who gets support? I asked this question to a well-respected pollster once and he said that the issue is more on how well the polls are done. If we do our jobs well we keep politicians abreast of popular opinion and thus are a valuable contributor to democracy. There is nothing wrong with accurately measuring the truth and communicating it.
Of course, when polls are done poorly, the opposite is true. The media has an insatiable appetite for polls. As a consequence, there are many poorly-designed polls released and reported upon. There are even more polls that are really just shilling for the parties and Super PACs in disguise. The media has been either unable or unwilling to differentiate the credible from the bad, and with a continuous news cycle we’ll see more poor quality polls reported upon.
It doesn’t help that even the major pollsters struggle to get it right. In the recent UK elections, pretty much every pollster missed badly. Even FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s site that tends to be highly critical of polling and a self-appointed arbiter of good and bad polls, had to issue a mea culpa when their own predictions rang hollow.
As long as the media is running 24/7 and starved for content, the polls will continue. The challenge is to sort out the good from the bad and the signal from the noise. It isn’t easy but it is important – literally who gets elected as the next US President can depend upon it.