Why would a candidate's poll be complimentary to her opponents?
April 22, 2012 6:27 PM   Subscribe

Why would a poll paid for by a congressional primary campaign include so much complimentary information about the opposing candidates?

I just took a phone call and agreed to participate in a political poll. This turned out to be l-o-o-o-o-ng; at least twenty minutes. The poll concerned the Democratic primary for my congressional district (which, given the nature of my congressional district, is more or less equivalent to the general election.) I was presented with a long, very laudatory capsule summary of each candidate's record and asked how likely I was to vote for that candidate. Then there was a long list of questions of the form "Here is a positive thing about candidate X. Would this make you much more likely to vote for X, more likely, a little more likely, no more likely?" These covered all three candidates, roughly equally. And then a long list of questions of the form "Here is a negative thing about candidate X. As a reason not to vote for them, is this very convincing, somewhat convincing, not too convincing, not convincing at all?" Again,
roughly equal coverage of all three candidates. I did notice one thing: one of the negative items, about a candidate whose initials are KHR, was "She voted against a proposal that would give our school district the flexibility to hand over control of some schools to an unaccountable voucher organization" which did not sound like it was meant to be all that negative. In general, though, the negatives were pretty negative; this person took lots of campaign cash from someone unsavory, this other one has no legislative accomplishments, this third one didn't vote to restrict the movement of sex offenders enough, bla bla bla.

At the end of the poll I asked who was polling me. The guy asking the questions didn't want to tell me, but after some prodding his supervisor got on the line and told me the poll was paid for by the KHR campaign.

So what was going on here? Why is a candidate spending money on a long call that puts forward positive information about her opponents and negative information about herself? Is the point just to put those assertions in people's minds, or is she getting information about what campaign messages are likely to be successful? But then why does she need to test positive campaign messages about her opponents?
posted by escabeche to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A poll is a very ineffective way to get a message out so it's extremely unlikely that they asked those questions just to plant the assertions in people's minds. Generally you test positives and negatives on both yourself and your opponent so you know what messages are effective. It's helpful to know what things your opponent is going to say about herself and whether those things will resonate with voters so you add some positive questions about your opponent to the poll.
posted by fancypants at 6:31 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't have any special knowledge, but I'd say you experienced an honest-to-god poll. That is, information is valuable. They have to gauge where they and their opponents actually are.

As a side note, it's kinda crazy that that's surprising, that we expect every poll to be propaganda in disguise.
posted by mad bomber what bombs at midnight at 6:31 PM on April 22, 2012

Candidates are interested in what their opponents's strengths are or what sort of message the other candidates will likely use. This can be useful, for example, if you identify what your opponents' biggest strength is likely to be and find a way to start attacking it before they are able to identify themselves in a positive way.
posted by andoatnp at 6:40 PM on April 22, 2012

It's self-research. "I voted against a school proposal. I wonder if people care about that? I'll run a poll about what I think my own faults are and see what's resonating. At the same time, I'll see if people that hate this thing about me also like XYZ aspects of my opponent. Hey look! All the people that hated my school proposal vote love my opponent for this other reason. If I can address that, maybe they'll forget about my school proposal."

A poll is a very ineffective way to get a message out

John McCain disagrees with you.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:05 PM on April 22, 2012

They're testing messaging: what works as effective messages for and against the different candidates. It's not meant to change your opinion, but to aggregate info about what likely voters are more or less likely to respond to.
posted by gingerbeer at 7:39 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Many people confuse push polling with message testing. You absolutely want to avoid whenever possible anyone sussing out who paid for your poll early before questions are asked. You want to test your own negatives not only to see what is likely to come out against you, but also because stacking up too many negatives about your opponents or too many positives about you biases you towards certain answers in later questions.

I presume you're talking about Wisconsin's 2nd District, which has a four-way primary going on with no candidate having clear districtwide name recognition. You have to ask about all candidates including yourself because at the end you ask for support again to see whether any of the messages budged the numbers. None of the four candidates are household candidates districtwide, so you'll have to read some bios first.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 7:44 PM on April 22, 2012

Not a conventional push poll, because who could afford a 20 min. phone call per voter for a significant number of voters?

I would say it was a poll designed to test whether candidate KHR's vote against vouchers would hurt her in the election if her opponents chose to make it a point of emphasis in their campaigns, but I see a couple of problems with that.

For one, it's not clear she would really care, for the purposes of this election, since she's already taken the vote, unless other votes on the issue are coming up before the election.

And the mention that the voucher organization is "unaccountable" is strange, because her opponents would never say that, true or not. Maybe there's an alternate version of the poll which does not mention accountability, and they're comparing results to see whether unaccountability could immunize KHR against negative consequences of her vote. That could be useful in this election.

Another aspect of this is that teacher's unions not only make big donations to to Democrats these days, they provide the bulk of volunteer workers for many campaigns, and nothing is more important to them than stopping vouchers.

KHR may have authorized the poll, but teacher's unions could have earmarked funds for it in order to show her-- and other legislators-- that voting against vouchers doesn't have to hurt them.
posted by jamjam at 7:57 PM on April 22, 2012

Best answer: Former political staffer whose worked with pollsters a lot here. They were testing the opponent's positives and negatives.

It's as important to know what your opponents strengths are as it is to know their weaknesses. Think back to the 2004 election - I'm sure GOP pollsters figured out right away that one of Kerry's biggest positives was his record as a war hero, which was why they did the swift boat attacks, to damage one of his biggest positives. Or for a less-evil example: I was once working on an issue campaign where we were getting a lot of pressure to fight back on our opponent's main message. It was tempting, but we did polling where we found that it was the strongest message for their side - but it was also one of the least important factors for the people polled. So we realized it didn't make sense for us to engage the opposition on that topic, and we stayed away from it. And won.

And this sounds like a very standard message-testing poll. They're usually about 20 minutes long, which incidentally is one reason it's hard (and expensive) to get a representative sample for polls like this.
posted by lunasol at 8:21 PM on April 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

For what it's worth, I'm in Wisconsin's 2nd district and I don't see any action or publicity re the Congressional primary yet. The recall and its associated primary are sucking up all the political air in the room, so to speak. I don't expect the House or Senate primaries on either side to get going until after that's settled.

Interesting times, huh?
posted by sesquipedalia at 4:10 AM on April 23, 2012

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