Size Matters? How to Pick Your Pollster

A crucial first step for every political campaign is deciding on the consultants that will help guide their candidate to victory.


A crucial first step for every political campaign is deciding on the consultants that will help guide their candidate to victory. From the media and mail experts who will help get your candidate’s name and message to the voters, to the pollsters who will determine the best approach and target audiences for the campaign, each consultant is a vital component to any winning team.   Many factors can influence this hiring process: Does this firm have experience in this area of the country? Do they have a track record of working with our type of candidate? Does this consultant’s personality fit in with our current team? The list goes on and on. When it comes to mail and media firms, these factors, coupled with other more aesthetic considerations such as style and product feel, are largely determinant in a campaign’s hiring decisions.   Choosing the right pollster, however, is more difficult. Finding the right pollster requires a more nuanced consideration since there is little ability to look at a polling shop’s finished product or anything comparable to a media reel. Past experience is clearly a factor that many campaigns look at, as is a pollster’s success rate in prior elections. Many campaigns will also focus on the personality and personal reputation of their pollster since a firm who works well with others can be the difference between a well-oiled machine and a dysfunctional unit that would make a few reality television families blush.   While past results, expertise in a specific area and personality are all valid criteria for deciding which pollster to hire, there is one other factor that is often mistakenly ignored: the size of the polling firm. Having worked at large, medium and small firms, I have heard the argument for why each is the best fit for a campaign. There are valid arguments for each, but should a campaign make a decision on who to hire based (at least partially) on an extensive client list? Or should a campaign look to a smaller boutique firm who focuses on a small list of clients? As is often the case in politics, the answer is that it depends; the decision is unique for each campaign. However, as the founder of a small polling firm based out of Washington, D.C., I would encourage all campaigns to keep an open mind when it comes to smaller polling firms.   A common misconception about small firms is that they work exclusively on small races. The Obama campaign from 2008 is a prime example of how smaller firms can deliver in very large ways. The Obama camp used six polling firms: three small firms and three firms that are best described as medium sized. From presidential races to statewide races, campaigns are starting to use smaller firms more frequently.   Another common misconception about small polling firms is that their smaller client list is a result of their not offering the same level of services as larger firms. This simply could not be farther from the truth. For many well qualified polling firms, a smaller client list is a conscious decision. Fewer clients means a smaller number in the total billed column at the end of the year, but it also provides smaller shops the ability to be more intimately engaged with each client and their respective race.   Pollsters are an odd breed. We live for data. We love working with spreadsheets, and we wake up in the middle of the night thinking of a new way to slice and dice an electorate. There is a clear theme running through many small firms on why the founders went out and started their own firm: the ability to be up to their eyeballs in data for each client was more appealing than the prospect of more clients and larger returns. As I said, we are an odd bunch.   So if small firms are just as capable and qualified as large firms to provide high quality data analysis to campaigns at all levels, what should a campaign look for when making a decision on which polling firm to hire? The answer to this question is contingent on how the campaign intends to utilize their pollster.   One way pollsters tend to be used is solely as the numbers guy (or gal). The campaign will call on their pollster to get an understanding of where the race stands and what needs to be done to win. Otherwise, there is little involvement of the pollster in other campaign decisions.   A much more effective method is to fully incorporate your pollster as a part of the campaign team. Campaign decisions on messaging, targeting and the like are made with input from your polling consultant along with others, and input is given based on what the polling has shown. If you are planning on running a very compartmentalized campaign and only using your pollster to deliver numbers on a periodic basis, there will be little difference between a large or small firm. But if you want to run a more collaborative style campaign, then the size of the firm can make a real difference. Each campaign should make a decision on what feels like the best fit for their team; in some cases a large firm will feel like the right match, while other campaigns will see a smaller firm as the better option. The later was the case for Sean Coffey, a Democratic candidate to become New York’s next Attorney General.   Coffey is a recently retired plaintiffs’ attorney, former Naval officer, and former federal prosecutor who is running for elected office for the first time. He and his manager have hired smaller firms —including mine—to fulfill almost every level of their consultant needs.   “As with most campaigns, the team around the table tends to be a reflection of the candidate,” says Tammy Sun, the campaign’s spokesperson. “Sean is a newcomer to politics, who made a career out of fighting for the little guy. As any former head of Arthur Andersen or WorldCom will tell you, Sean’s natural inclination is not to equate the size of a company with being right. This is not to say that having larger consulting firms around the table would mean the campaign wouldn’t function as well, but we do have an atmosphere of teamwork and flexibility that I have not seen on many campaigns.”   Van Parish, Coffey’s campaign manager, put it this way: “I have worked with large and small firms throughout the years and have had excellent results with both. With Sean we have an exceptional candidate, and in the current political environment the race seems like it is changing almost daily. This is one of those years where a little bit of extra attention from our consultants can make all the difference.”   “For our purposes, a smaller polling firm turned out to be the right choice for two main reasons. First, I know that anytime there is a question on the campaign that I need answered, I can get them on the phone right away. I never feel that we are just one of many clients, and for the most part it feels like we are the one and only focus of their firm. Secondly, with a small firm I always feel that our campaign is front and center in their minds. When I call to ask a question on the numbers, I don’t get the sense that they are looking through a few dozen banner books to get the answer.”   The Coffey campaign is not alone in their decision to “think small.” From national to statewide campaigns as well as down-ballot races, small polling shops are helping guide candidates to victory across the country.   A good campaign team can be the difference between a successful November and sitting back and thinking about what might have been. Hiring a small polling firm is not a guarantee of success, but any campaign will serve itself well to not overlook the smaller firms and consider the advantages that they may bring to the table. There will always be larger firms that are a better fit for some campaigns, but every candidate and every manager should consider all factors when deciding what type of consultant will best fit their team.   Stefan Hankin is the founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies. His clients have included presidential candidates, Fortune 500 companies, associations, and non-profit organizations. He can be reached at Stefan@LPStrategies.com.

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