Public polling was excoriated last year as the misses piled up and surveyors’ methodology faced waves of scrutiny. Even some pollsters were predicting the demise of their profession in its current form, along with a few professors who argued that 2016 could mark “the end of industrial political polling.”
But just six weeks into 2017, pollsters are confident their business isn’t going away anytime soon. Despite facing growing costs associated with calling cellphones, competition from social media listening services and Facebook surveys, pollsters believe they’re on track for a banner cycle.
That’s partly because the political environment is so uncertain that congressional and gubernatorial incumbents will be more anxious to gauge their prospects. And that’s something unlikely to change while President Trump is in office.
“Good polling that’s the right tool for the right environment, that’s always going to be in-demand,” GOP pollster Justin Wallin told C&E.
Stefan Hankin agreed there could be an uptick in business, at least “in theory.”
“The bigger issue right now [is] organizations trying to figure out what a Trump administration means. Clearly the first few weeks have been a little chaotic, to say the least, and we haven't even moved on to legislation,” he said.
Trump’s cabinet nominations have faced plenty of resistance. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos drew enough opposition from organized labor and activist groups that her nomination required Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tie-breaking confirmation vote in the Senate.
“If organizations view [the] opportunity to block or push an agenda then yes” pollsters will get more business, Hankin said. “If it’s a freakin’ shit show, then I could see a lot of organizations pull back a bit and try to wait for a little stability and predictability.”
Chris Wilson’s clients aren’t waiting. The Republican said his firm, which does data science in addition to polling, has seen an uptick in work and new clients since last cycle wrapped. “Looking at both our 2018 incumbent client roster — Gov. Abbott, Sen. Cruz — and the overall political map we expect this cycle to be our best ever.”
Wilson said WPA Research has staffed up in anticipation.
Meanwhile, Wallin recently left Southern California-based Probolsky Research to launch his own self-named shop. In this environment, he said the biggest obstacle to success for pollsters isn’t the reputation of public polls but rather candidate education.
“It’s not as meaningful to me that public polling is taking a beating, which it will continue to with this presidency,” he said. “My [firm] doesn’t operate in that space. I know when I’m moving the dial: there’s a very clear ROI for my clients so they know exactly what they’re getting.”
He said candidates should educate themselves on the uses and limitations of different types of surveys and pointed to robo-polling, which is attractive to incumbents because it’s cheaper than lives calls.
“But they can’t just do it once. With that kind of poll you’re looking for a pattern, so the investment isn’t that one time, it’s several times. And that’s what gets you the value. If they’re looking to do messaging, they need to use a different tool,” said Wallin.
Now, in an age when pollsters are facing mounting obstacles, including the growing number of people who simply won’t answer a call from an unknown number, Wallin said there’s still great potential for survey research.
“If you know how to use the voter file correctly, and you’re not doing things that really should have been shed years ago, you can accurately predict voter behavior,” he said. “The concept that people aren’t calling mobile phones is insane. But people still [don’t].
And when they do call mobile phones, 90 percent of the time they put an artificial cap on it. When you’ve got 70-percent plus of people who [use their] mobile phone primarily, you just can’t do that and expect to get a representative sample.”
He continued: “Whether five years from now we’re still calling people on the phone, or the methodology has changed because the world has changed, that’s a different matter. The tools change, but the need is there.”