Wednesday, October 08, 2008

October Files: How Much Polling?

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At this point in the election cycle, there are a frenzy of polls going around. You can check state-by-state polls here, here and here. There are also tons of national polls that can be found on your favorite national news website.

How much polling does a presidential campaign do on its own?

When a candidate sets up to run for higher office, that is to say anything statewide or national, the first entities brought on board are a finance director, a media firm and a pollster. You cannot expect to successfully run for office at that level without these three entities. And the media consultant is generally the leader of the three.

Early in the cycle, polling might be done once a month - it all depends on funding and the amount of volatility in the electorate. The closer we get to an election, say the last 90 days or so, the polling becomes a lot more frequent. Pollsters are constantly looking to see how certain messages are resonating with an audience, and if the campaign should continue in that direction or move in another. They also need to poll in response to events that occur during the normal news cycle (the worsening economy in the past 30 days is a good example).

Internal polling, down the stretch, is done on a constant basis.

A good poll normally takes about one week to conduct. Others can be done quicker - certainly we've seen same-night polls done in response to debates - but those are expensive. A good sample is about 500 voters. Obviously, the larger the sample the more accurate the read. A poll with a 1,000 person sample is great, but a properly weighted survey of 500 still has a low margin of error (+/- 4% or less).

National polls are not typically done by presidential campaigns, as there are plenty of news organizations conducting and publishing these surveys. But more importantly, the national polls don't offer the campaign much value in the way of data. How are seniors in South Florida reacting to the bailout package? A national survey will not have enough of a sample to determine an accurate read on this group. These are called "cross tabs" and they are the real meat and potatoes of the survey - the stuff that tells a campaign how it is performing among certain groups, certain age ranges, and even certain regions of a particular state.

Thus the state-by-state polls are far more valuable to a campaign, give a better read of the various electorates, and allow a campaign to tinker with message and strategy as necessary.

If the campaigns are polling so much, why doesn't this info get leaked?

At all levels, a campaign is only as good as it's data. And internal polling is something that is usually kept within a tight circle of senior advisors. It isn't shared with organizers or *gasp* bloggers. And if it were to leak, it might be stale by the time it hits the papers because of the round-the-clock nature of polling at this stage in the game.