Low-budget campaigns are always in search of cheap alternatives to execute big-budget tactics. This begs the question: robo-poll or live-interview survey?

Robo-polling will always be the cheaper option, but many consultants and candidates don’t really understand the difference and may be surprised by the final product.

Let’s put aside for the moment the fight that has been raging for years between pollsters over the validity of robo-polling and assume that both live-interview and robo-poll surveys produce equally accurate results. Choosing which survey approach to employ largely depends on what you need. Robo-polls provide you with a quick, cheap way to test who is winning at that moment. Robo-polling surveys have to be short, generally less than 15 questions, because the drop-off rate is higher when the respondent is listening to a recording. This provides just enough questions to ask the necessary screening questions, basic demographics and a ballot.

Live-interview surveys are going to cost you at least twice as much, but allow you to test messages, themes, images, in-depth issues, biographical narratives and ballot positions, building a data set that can identify key voter segments and a communication strategy that can move voters toward your candidate and away from your opponent. In short, the live-interview approach is meant to be more of a strategic planning tool and less of a quick measurement of where the race is at that snap-shot in time.

If you’re looking to determine who is winning the race, you may just want to go with a cheap robo-poll. However, if you’re looking to gather data to build a campaign plan complete with messaging, targeting and understanding the tactics needed to win, I suggest spending the money for a live-interview survey. Either way, you will get exactly what you pay for in each instance.


Tyler Harber is vice president and director of the political division for Wilson Research Strategies, a public opinion research and political consulting firm for Republicans. You can follow Harber at www.w-r-s.com or on Twitter @tharber.