To state the obvious, Rick Santorum’s decision to forgo hiring a pollster hasn’t helped his chances of capturing the Republican presidential nomination. History shows campaigns that operate without the benefit of specialized public opinion research usually face an unhappy end.
But as a pollster myself, I don’t think Santorum’s decision is one that should be explained away as quickly as his campaign might think. Not employing a pollster shows a complete lack of understanding of what polling can and should do for a campaign.
Chief strategist John Brabender explained Santorum’s decision to forgo a pollster this way: “There’s a way that polling makes people crazy with data and they want to build the whole campaign around that … Rick said, ‘I don’t want someone telling us what to believe.’”
Without a pesky numbers man telling him what’s what, Santorum is relying on public polling.
Now, public polling serves a purpose. It allows a narrative to be built in the media, but it’s focused primarily on who’s up, who’s down and who’s likely to win. This is a 10,000-foot view of the race, and rarely are questions included that focus on why a candidate is up or down, what his ceiling is, how low his numbers might go, and what voters view as the candidate’s biggest strengths and weaknesses.
A public poll is similar to what the Dow Jones Industrial Average did on a particular day. Sure, it’s an accurate number and you know generally how the day went, but it gives you no depth of understanding. As most economists will tell you, the Dow is a fairly meaningless, albeit ever-present number. Daily ups and downs in a campaign are even less meaningful.
For a campaign that wants to be serious about actually winning, the horse race should be the least interesting number in the poll. The horse race is a measure of what the result would be if the election were held on that day. Because you’re typically not polling on Election Day, the numbers become technically obsolete the day after the poll. For a presidential campaign, the most important questions are: where do we need to go? What do we need to do to get there? How does our opponent win? What can we do to make sure that doesn’t happen?
If you’re not asking yourself these questions on a campaign on a daily basis, you’re not doing your job.
What’s likely happening in Camp Santorum is a lot of people using phrases like “I know the voters in (name of state)” or “what I think voters want is.” A campaign that’s talking in first-person terms, or claims an intimate knowledge of voters based on people on the street or voters at the doors is fooling itself. To have a real understanding of what is happening in a state or district you need to be hearing from voters all over, not just the people who are supporting you or are polite to your face if you turn up at their door step.
Taking this one step further, there should never be a conversation on a campaign that starts with “what I think voters want is…” That is why you poll—to know what voters want. Voters have this very odd habit of voting for things that they feel are in their best interest. If you don’t know what that is then you’re not going to win them over.
Campaigns are increasingly about the math, and this is especially true when it comes to presidential primary races that focus on delegates. This race is not just about getting to a majority, it’s figuring out how to maximize your delegate count. The 2008 Democratic primary was a perfect example of it. The Obama campaign was keyed in on which states were worth spending money on, which states were going to then-Sen. Hillary Clinton and then what was the most effective way to get to the desired result. Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign seemed more focused on big state wins. Super Tuesday in 2008 demonstrated how far good polling and an understanding of the math can take you.
Over the years there have been plenty of examples of campaigns gone wrong because they either refused to poll or because they based their strategy on public numbers. Generally, the story concludes with an unhappy ending. Santorum’s headed toward the same result.
Stefan Hankin is founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based public opinion firm. Follow him on Twitter at @LPStrategies