The Perils of Message Polling
I’ve had the opportunity over the last year to listen to a number of polling presentations that yield recommendations on how to talk about various political issues. The polling is fine, as far as it goes, but the recommendations are flawed, and here’s why:
- Public opinion is always contradictory. As a result, people interpreting polls try to find consistency where none really exists, calibrating messaging recommendations so as to find some marginal, targeted, incremental advantage. This not only leads to the most conservative possible set of recommendations, it proceeds from a flawed presumption that the realm of the possible in public opinion is represented by the data already collected.
- Public opinion is as much driven by messengers as by messages. So, by considering "messages" in the abstract, the process through which recommendations are created ignores half of the reality of how public opinion is in fact formed. Trusted personalities, party and individual brands, and opinion validators make a difference and can significantly change the playing field of opinion. The biggest set of validators are the media types (Marc Ambinder, come on down!) , which is why the GOP works them so hard, and so successfully, while establishment Dems simply cede that territory .
- Pollsters draw their questions from options already considered legitimate by the elites. Accordingly, the data already reflect inherently conservative options.
- Message recommendations tend to perpetuate bland committee-speak among candidates and organizations that adopt the recommendations, leaving the public to trust the messengers less. Bleached out, passionless language makes people justifiably suspicious, so that even the outcomes well intended message construction seeks to achieve are ultimately undermined as wimpy bureauspeak.
I’m not at all saying polling should not be done, but I am saying that recommendations for political messaging based only on polling systemically lead to timid, conservative political messaging. I’m saying this occurs for logical reasons based on the flawed assumptions built in to the polling based political message development process.
The result in part is an Obama campaign that signals a willingness to extend Bush’s billionaire tax cuts while labeling McCain a hero and virtually apologizing for campaigning against such a fine American saint. Sarah Palin energizes the right wing base, expands the universe of McCain voters /volunteers and swings independents to McCain, while Obama’s middling mush leaves the left wing base underwhelmed. So smart in a close election, virtual genius.
The best and the brightest!