Top 5 Things Political Candidates Learn from a Poll

Many candidates think they are going to win, but when the ballots are counted on Election Night they go down in flames.

This usually happens because they never knew where they honestly stood with the voters, what issues mattered the most to the voters, and which of the candidate’s endorsements that the voters trusted (or didn’t trust).

There’s an easy way to prevent this from happening to you.

It’s by conducting a professional poll, also known as a public opinion survey.

Whenever I can afford to do a poll on a campaign I am working on, I commission a poll.

More than once it has helped me focus a campaign and drive it to victory.

In these instance we’ve these polls identified the needle in the hay stack issues that our competitors were missing.

And polls have also helped me show candidates that they have no chance of winning a certain race so they should not waste either their time or money.

As my go-to pollster Matt Jason said in this interview, “The local candidate which makes polling a priority has a huge advantage over his or her opponents because their campaign has hard facts to work from and to use in voter targeting efforts.”

When I’m working on a campaign I want to know what the voters are thinking and where my candidate stands in their views.

Specifically I’m seeking to find what we might be able to do to persuade the voters to mark their ballot by my candidate’s name when they vote.

That’s the only goal of a campaign and you should use every tool that can help you accomplish it, including conducting a poll.

There are five things that you can learn from a good poll that can help you win your election.

1. A poll tells you what the voters are concerned about.

As an active member of your community, you likely have a good grasp of what the big issues are in the area.

However, a poll can reveal a lot more information to you in this regard.

You can see which voter demographics are most concerned with a certain issue, but more importantly, you can identify what other issues are on the minds of the voters.

The best way to accomplish this is by commencing your poll with an open-ended question.

This open ended question asks the voter being polled what they currently consider to be the two or three biggest issues facing the city/county/school district/etc.

The answers to the open-ended question come right out of the voters’ heads without any direction from the pollster are important. 

What they say is what is really bothering them and is an excellent indicator of the issue (or issues) your campaign should focus on.

Often in the polls my candidates have conducted, an issue arises from the open-ended question that wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

If you’re the candidate who first starts talking about the issue and presents a plan to deal with it, the voters will view you as someone who has your finger on the pulse of the community.

This will raise you in their esteem and help you become the person they trust to address the matter once in office.

2. A poll tells you if your messaging will persuade voters.

In addition to the open-ended question, you should also test specific parts of your campaign’s messaging (or intended messaging) in a poll.

It may seem redundant, but as someone who doesn’t believe in wasting campaign cash, believe me when I say this is helpful.

After the open-ended issue question, the pollster then states your campaign positions one by one, each time asking the voters how important the issue is to them.

If 40% or more of the responding voters say the issue is “strongly important” to them, then you have a winning issue. 

If the “strongly important” response rate is below 40%, then it’s not an issue you should be campaigning on.

The best result is when more than 40% of the voters view your position as “strongly important” and a significant percentage listed the issue you’re addressing as a top concern in the open-ended question.

When that happens you’ve struck gold.

Sometimes an issue doesn’t show up as a major concern in the open ended question but it scores high when it’s tested as one of your positions.

If that’s the case, use the issue. It’s a winner, but you will also need to address the issues the voters raised previously without any prompting.

I’ve also seen when a position of a candidate seems to match a concern of the voter, but less than 40% of the polled voters consider the position to be very important.

If that happens to you, you must be careful. The voters are not saying the issue isn’t important to them, it just doesn’t rise to to the level of where it must be addressed or fixed immediately.

3. A poll tells you if specific line of attack will work.

I know, you don’t want to go negative. That’s okay. You may not have to.

But it doesn’t mean an opponent won’t attempt to do the political body slam on you in the heat of the campaign.

(If you’re not sure about going negative, please read my 7 Rules for Going Negative on a Political Campaign)

If you know you have any potential vulnerabilities, you should test them in a poll.

It will tell you if that information will make the voters more likely or less likely to vote for you.

You want to pay attention to the voters who say this makes them much mess likely to vote for you.

However, when you test your vulnerabilities, the results matters most inverse to when you tested your position statements.

If 40% or more of the voters say that negative information about you will make them much less likely to vote for you, you will be in trouble if attacked on that information.

Should you find yourself in such a position you will have three possible courses of action to take.

1) You can inoculate yourself from the hit.

2) You can prepare a response to launch once an attack lands.

3) You can make your attacker look not so pristine by hitting them with their own negatives.

But just like your negatives, you should only be attacking an opponent if their negatives move 40% or more of the voters in a poll to be much less likely to vote against that candidate.

If the negative doesn’t resonate with a negative intensity of over 40% in your poll, it’s not going to land with a thud with the voters. Don’t use it.

At the same time, don’t feel the need to respond to an attack if it also doesn’t move the voters.

That said, your opponent may have a negative that strongly turns off 40% of the voters of a certain demographic like women, seniors, Independent or Latino voters for instance.

In that case, you can target your attacks using that negative specifically to that demographic.

This could make a major difference in a close race.

4. A poll tells you how trusted your messengers are.

This may come as a shock, but no one wants to listen to a candidate blowing their own horn and touting their own resume.

That’s where campaign messengers come in.

You need third parties to tell the voters that you are a bottle of awesome sauce and how totally you rock the Casbah.

But not any third party messenger will do. Nope. It needs to be someone the voters trust.

That’s why we politcos call this “third party credibility.”

If the third party isn’t trusted by your voters, then they have zero credibility.  Such messengers are useless to your campaign. Using them might even harm your campaign if they are extremely distrusted.

Typical third party messengers I test are other elected officials, organizations (police/fire/teachers/nurses associations, chambers of commerce, political parties), and news outlets.

By the way, you aren’t testing if people approve or disapprove of these messengers.

What you want to know is if the voters trust these messengers when it comes to making recommendations in elections.

If a tested messenger is “strongly trusted” by 40% or more of the voters in the poll, then use that messenger in your campaign.

If a messengers doesn’t meet that threshold, you don’t have a credible messenger.

I’ve used popular messengers to introduce first-time candidates and it’s worked marvelously.

Likewise, I’ve seen candidates I’ve worked against tout their support of a local newspaper only to lose the election. They had no idea how much the voters distrusted the local newspaper.

But I did and my candidate didn’t seek their endorsement.

5. A poll tells you where you stand with the voters.

In a poll, you want to test a head-to-head match up between you and the other candidates in the race.

This will reveal what percentage of the vote you have as compared to your opponents.

Additionally, a good poll will also show you how strong such support is.

Are the voters definitely for or for an opponent? Or are they just probably voting for their candidate of choice?

Soft supporters or “probably” voters should never be considered as strong or “definite” supporters of a candidate.

Between the time of talking to the pollster and casting their ballots, these voters can and often do change their minds about who they will vote for.

Voters who say they are only probably voting for a candidate are up for grabs. They can still be persuaded to vote for you — or your opponent.

Keeping this in mind will ensure you have more realistic picture of where you’re at in your race when you review your polling results.

If you want to win your election, then you should make it a priority to not only shore up your “soft supporters,” but work to sway as many of your opponents “soft supporters” to come over to your side.

You can then target your marketing at subsections of voters who say they are only “probably supporting” you or another candidate, plus all of the undecided voters.

Your polls results will also indicate which demographic groups you need to engage more with to turn them from “probably” voting for you into definite supporters.

Candidate Take Aways

Polling is an effective way for candidates to know where they stand with the voters, and what issues resonate with the voters.

When 40% or more of the voters deem an issue “strongly important” you need to come up with a plan to address that issue.

A good poll will also tell you which voters “strongly support” you or your opponents.

When you identify which voters “strongly support you,” do everything you can to keep them on your side.  Then go to work on bringing your leaners, the undecideds, and even your opponents’ leaners your way.