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You’ve signed a consultant, hired the fundraiser, and found the right person to run the ground operation. Do you really need a polling firm to test your message? After all, the team you’ve assembled should be able to develop a winning message, right? More often than not, the answer is no.

No matter how robust a campaign team, a pollster should always have a seat at the top leadership table. This sounds counterintuitive to many candidates in this environment. The headlines have been blaring about how the pollsters got it wrong last cycle. Moreover, there are public surveys, Facebook surveys and anecdotes from golf buddies to make up the gap in information.

But that’s the exact reason why campaigns need their own expert. In an environment with an abundance of free information, you get what they pay for. In other words, public polling, or social media polling is no substitute for a good opinion-research survey. In fact, it’s mission-critical for campaigns to ask questions, test assumptions, profile supporters and the opposition, and clearly identify your most effective messages. Here’s how to make that happen within most campaign budgets.  

Good research will save you money. 
Opinion research allows you to maximize your precious campaign dollars and increases your ROI. On a practical level, you will be able to better tailor your message to each segment of the electorate. You’ll know which messages are best-suited for wide distribution—like, say, with a TV buy—and which are better-suited for online ads or snail mail. Polling gives you the ability to expand your mail universe (and reduce your per-piece cost) when a message has broad appeal, or reduce your mail universe when a specific message has power with only a narrow segment of the electorate.

Our firm’s minimum point of entry, around $8,500, can provide your campaign with meaningful guidance on big picture themes. That’s less than a single mailer in most campaigns. Moreover, one way for small budget campaigns to save money is to drop the number of completes. A campaign can save nearly $10,000 on a 25-question poll by dropping the number of completes from 400 to 300, while preserving a high degree of statistical significance. But there’s a caveat to that. 

Sacrificing sample size comes at a cost.  
Fewer completes does reduce your poll’s margin of error. That’s why D.C. pundits have come to expect a minimum 400 respondents for a congressional race. A smaller sample size may not greatly impact the validity of the aggregate numbers, but a larger number of completes allows you to understand in greater detail the demographic nuances of your community or political sub-division.

Bad research is worse than no research.
Bad polling can lead your campaign in the wrong direction. You’ll waste money emphasizing the wrong issues that aren’t resonating with the electorate. Worse, bad polling can encourage a campaign to drive over a cliff with a losing message.

How to tell the good from the bad? Methodology. Cheap research tools, such as online polling or robo-polls, often lack valid methodology (although they still often can play a useful role if used in the right way). While the results might be interesting, sometimes even useful, they are often dead wrong, or easily misinterpreted. A benchmarking poll needs to incorporate proven methodology and have statistically significant results in order to produce accurate findings.

Phone polls (that include cell phones) remain the gold standard of polling.

Nearly half of American households have cut the phone cord. Good luck trying to reach the other half screening calls on their landline. Nevertheless, the best polls are still phone polls – provided they have no limits on cell phone completes.  

When pollsters call cells, it’s expensive — largely because the FCC has ruled that autodialing mobile phones is against the law (instead, each mobile phone number has to be manually dialed). In order to control costs, many pollsters place an artificial “cap” on cell phone completes – often as low as 30 percent. Consequently, the sample of respondents being surveyed inaccurately reflects the target population. You get flawed results.

You must poll in the language(s) of your community.
If your district is multi-lingual, you must poll in multiple languages. This rule is non-negotiable. Many voters don’t speak English or simply are more comfortable speaking another language. For individuals who are multi-lingual, English might not be their preferred language, making it difficult to find the right words to express the nuance of their position.

You must pull from the voter file. 
Depending on your state, the voter database offers a detailed record of registered voters, their demographic information and how often they have voted in past elections. Pulling from the voter file allows you to develop reliable, accurate forecasting. Voting behavior fluctuates between elections…presidential years yield different turnouts from municipal special elections. Knowledgeable use of the voter file gives you the power to distinguish between voter’s words and actual behavior.

Cheaper tools, like robo-polling, can identify trends and patterns.
Every day, we’re seeing new tools in the research and opinion space. From online polls to social media analytics, these tools can add value to your campaign – when used in the appropriate context. For example, robo-polling can be useful when repeated over time to identify patterns. Just like construction, there’s a right tool for everything.

Online polling may capture the national horserace, but not your regional race. 
Online research is evolving for the better. Google has proven that online polling can deliver highly-accurate results, especially in large universe for single-question horse races. Online polling, however, has its limitations for smaller, district-based campaigns. Online respondents don’t accurately reflect the population. They’re disproportionately younger and more inclined to embrace technology. Most importantly, online surveys have yet to perfect a way of pulling from the voter file. We’ll get there as more states embrace online voter registration, but we’re not there yet.

Justin Wallin is CEO of J. Wallin Opinion Research, a national opinion research firm with business, political and government clients.