Devine: I agree with that. But if someone said to me, “You can spend all your money on TV or you can spend all your money online, but you can only spend it in one place,” I’ll spend it on TV today. Maybe that will be different in 10 years.
Ayres: The distinction between TV, the Internet and cellphones is disappearing, too. It’s more a matter of one message communicated through different mediums.
C&E: On the regulatory side of things, what are the greatest challenges at the moment?
Ayres: The most immediate challenge we face in New Hampshire is a secretary of state who has defined push polling to include any legitimate campaign research and required all kinds of disclosure, sometimes up front in a survey. We’ve all done this long enough to know that if you call and say up front that you’re calling from the Obama campaign and you’d like to ask a few questions about the race, you can hang up the reliability of your numbers. I think it’s manageable if you can put the disclosure at the end rather than the start. That’s at least part of the way to deal with it. But we’ve got a lot of folks out there who are tired of calls at dinnertime and I get all that. There’s an easy way to make sure you don’t get a lot of calls at dinnertime: New Hampshire can change its primary from January to March and nobody will care. (laughter) So I’ve got an easy solution for them if they’re tired of calls. But this is going to be an ongoing battle.
Rowley: I’m curious how you feel about the IVR polling. What are the strengths and weaknesses there? In the polling sphere that’s been a dramatic change even from 2010 to 2012.
Ayres: You’re right. IVR polling has exploded, because it’s dirt cheap. Some people have no clue how to do an IVR poll, but some others have gotten pretty good at it using weighting and getting access to more and more people. The problem right now for IVR—and it’s a huge problem—is that they are prohibited from using an automated dialer to dial cellphones. So it goes back to the earlier conversation—if you have more and more cellphones you have a larger share of the numbers that are off-limits to IVR polling. Now, I think the IVR guys need to make some adjustments in federal law to allow them to do that. It’s a hangover from the time when somebody called your cellphone and you were charged for the call. Right now almost everybody has unlimited calling and so it’s not that big a deal from a regulatory perspective, yet we still have old regulations governing modern cellphone calling.
Ultimately, IVR will never replace what those of us in my side of the business do and that is extensive message testing that requires a live call. There’s no way in the world IVR calling will ever be able to do that, but IVR is here to stay and it’s going to grow particularly for short questionnaires where the main thing you want to know is who’s up or who’s down.
Devine: In my view, I think the development of what I would call narrative descriptive polling—the fact that you can read a statement to someone and gauge whether a voter is going to move in one direction or another after hearing the information—is the most important development in politics in my career. The fact that we can actually get that stuff, model it out, figure out a race on paper and then go to make a TV ad is critical. The fact that it could be threatened by a regulatory scheme could change the whole nature of our politics. If we can’t do that, our crystal ball is taken away. We can’t figure out how to make things happen in the future. I think that’s a really serious threat to people who rely on research and believe that it’s the basis of a winning message.
The second thing in terms of polling is that the great threat right now doesn’t seem to be the movement to cellphones. I think the big threat is the way you can aggregate so much data and actually match up the information to voter files and get down to finding individual voters. So instead of having to rely on a sample of 600 or 1,000 people to determine what a large group of people think, we can actually just go out and find out what that large group of people actually think. If you start moving toward that, it could be very precise.
Ayres: But you still have the issue of new information being injected, and you don’t always know from detailed demographic or social psychological data how people are going to react to new information. That’s where there would still be a role for what I do even given the truth of what you’re saying.
Devine: Absolutely. I agree with that.
C&E: Whit, have you looked at how to use data from social networks and what role that might play in the future of survey research?
Ayres: The thing we’ve done the most with at this point, in conjunction with The Mellman Group, is Twitter. We’re figuring out how to use their billions of tweets. Jon McHenry in our shop has been working with Adam Sharp at Twitter and Mark Mellman to figure out an algorithm. We came up with something called the twindex to anticipate, almost in real time, reactions to events and positive and negative information flow. It’s a fascinating project, but I think we’ve just scratched the surface of what you can do with Twitter.
C&E: Do campaigns need more of a brand focus on social media?
Devine: One thing about campaigns is that they have a life span—the end is on Election Day. The good campaigns are all alike, it doesn’t matter what you’re running for, and the bad campaigns are all alike. (laughter) In a bad campaign, the media consultant wants to be the pollster and the candidate wants to be the scheduler. In a good campaign, everyone has their role and they operate that way. So I think good campaigns are understanding social media and utilizing it well.
The Obama campaign plugged into social media and used it to get into people’s networks and communicate with people very aggressively. I think that’s the future of social media—it can usurp the role that parties once held exclusively where people got together and exchanged information and acted as a pack. You can begin to replicate that on social media right now at a very low cost. That’s an exciting development, especially for people who want to challenge the structure and authority of parties.
Rowley: For a lot of this we need to not focus on the presidential race. A lot of what’s happening online at the presidential level doesn’t translate even to a governor’s race, let alone a campaign at the district level. It’s not even a know-how issue; it’s a manpower issue. If you’re running as challenger in a really highly targeted race for Congress you probably don’t have a full time person who does digital for you. This is one way the party could become more relevant with some of these candidates. If they started providing those sorts of services—a tangible service that a candidate can’t provide for themselves. The expectation of what it means to have a great online campaign is still not the sort of thing that’s persuading a ton of people en masse. It’s still more of an internal newsletter to your supporters than it is a persuasion device.
Innocenzi: You bring up a valid point. When the presidential campaign has a billion dollars to spend it can do everything well. And in the case of the Obama campaign, they had four years to refine it and perfect it and make it better. When you get down to the lower level races, the big mistake you see with a lot of campaigns is that they want to do all things. You can’t do that on these races because you have limited budgets and a limited number of bodies. What you really need to do is pick one or two things and do them really well on these lower level races. You can probably win a smaller race with digital if that’s all you’re doing. But to stretch and do none of it well, you end up losing.
C&E: When you look at younger operatives and where this business is going is there anything that concerns you?
Innocenzi: Back in the 70s, when I first came up here, being a Republican in Washington, D.C. wasn’t necessarily a big thing. We had just gotten our ass handed to us in 1976 and so anyone who really called themselves a Republican was truly a Republican. They had a set of principles that they believed in. My one pet peeve now, especially in the ad business, is that everybody looks at the media commissions that are out there and some of these people do it for the money and there are no principles. Now, those guys get caught eventually. They get caught because they’re scamming somebody or because they’re overcharging. I think that’s probably the scariest thing you have on the Republican side, and I presume you guys have it on the Democratic side, too. These guys are looking for commissions and they don’t really give a shit about the principles of the party. Some of the younger folk are lacking principles. It’s not everybody, but there are some out there to make a buck and that disturbs me.
Rowley: There are so many more consultants and consulting firms out there now. It’s just inevitable that the talent pool is going to be a bit diluted. When I first got into the business whenever I was around the more established people I would try to soak everything up and try to learn. But I just feel like there’s a little bit of a devaluation of experience now. I’ve been in campaigns when we’re arguing about late breaking, important ad strategy, and somehow somebody who’s the second string on the field staff gets their opinion about the ad strategy weighed as heavily as mine. It’s sort of like Peyton Manning about to make a call on the field and someone comes in from the stands and changes the play. So I do think there are a lot of people who have hung out their own shingle pretty quickly. What I tell people who are thinking about going out on their own is you can’t think about the next year. Most people who have any level of talent can probably cobble together a practice for a year or a cycle. But you have to think about five years. Once you’ve been in this business for five years, you’re real. You’ve been through the ups and downs of the off-years.
Innocenzi: I think the market does weed this stuff out. The guys that have been around for 15 years or even 10 years are good, but we need new blood.
Ayres: It’s a Darwinian business.
C&E: From an AAPC perspective, can an industry group be an authority on who is serious in this business and who is not?
Ayres: We have talked periodically over the years at AAPC about a credentialing process for political consultants in general. After reflecting on it for about five minutes everybody around the table agrees it’s not a good idea. As partisan a business as this is, you could immediately see a credentialing process turned into a way to get even with a competitor or with someone you really don’t like. So I don’t know that we could ever get agreement on any sort of objective standards that you would apply to be a political consultant. So the idea pops back up about once every five years, but after discussing it we end up reaching the same conclusion every time and that is that this isn’t the sort of profession that’s going to lend itself well to any sort of objective credentialing process or gatekeeper role.
Innocenzi: The credentialing process is basically this: if you’re around for five or 10 years, then you know what the hell you’re doing. But if you go two cycles and you make a little bit of money but you’re not really good at it, you end up selling real estate.