With all the excitement around Obama’s historic candidacy last year, it was a great election for polling—not least of all because of the respectable turnout. “But this year we’ve crashed back to reality,” says Craig Charney, a pollster who has worked for leaders like Bill Clinton and Shimon Peres. That means candidates this year are facing the same old challenges as every other downballot, low-turnout race—it’s simply hard to predict.


But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to predict—or that doing so will break the bank. A typical poll, Charney says, costs $15,000 to $25,000, but a relatively stripped-down poll can be bought for as little as $10,000. That means campaigns running on budgets as small as $100,000 should be polling. And, no matter what your budget, if you find out your opponent is polling, you should, too, Charney says.


That money can easily be wasted is you’re not polling carefully. With a lower-priced poll, something will have to be sacrificed—either the number of voters contacted or the number of questions asked—which will mean less information for your campaign. For primary or downballot campaigns, don’t waste your money polling all registered voters; use a voter list to check their history and find a subset closer to your expected universe. When planning what to ask, be sure to consider issues of local importance—not just broad topics like “the economy.”


Charney appeared today on the “Overcoming Polling Challenges” at the Art of Political Campaign, sponsored by Campaigns & Elections’ Politics magazine. Also speaking were pollsters Adam Geller and Jon McHenry.


The other hot topic of the session was cell-phone polling. It caught media attention last year, and Geller said it will be a big issue in the next presidential election. But in the smaller elections happening over the next three years, cell phone polling won’t be as important. Most cell phone-only voters don’t behave very differently from voters with house phones, Geller said. And that should be a relief for small-race candidates. Though there was debate from attendees over the cost of cell-phone polling, McHenry pointed out that because cell-phones can’t be machine-dialed, there is a higher cost of labor, and since most cell phone users screen calls from unknown numbers, response rates are much lower.