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Digital consultants are making a play for down-ballot campaigns’ polling budgets. They’re now pitching Facebook and Twitter as ways to gauge voters’ opinions on issues and candidates. In reality, social media “listening” can only do so much for a candidate running below the federal level. 

When it comes to state legislative campaigns specifically, polling remains one of the best tools. There’s just no replacement for accurate, empirical results. As consultants for many down-ballot campaigns, we emphasize putting resources toward research in our clients’ strategic plans. While social media might represent a no-cost or low-cost option, don’t let budget be an excuse not to proceed with polling.

Many candidates are surprised to learn that not every survey has to cost $35,000 — or even $10,000. In fact, if a poll shows a candidate in a strong position, the numbers could make it rain with the district's big donors.

It sets the stage.

Many of our clients use polling to inform their choice to run or not. Funding groups, like lobbyists, associations, and IEs use it to determine what candidates or races are worthwhile for their involvement. More importantly, proper polling can go into great detail to show standing among demographic groups or along the lines of ideology and issues.

It tests messaging and strategy.

A highly favored component of polling is the ability to take assumptions and test them. You can test messages, strengths and weaknesses, issue stances and see the effect on base, swing and undecided voters. Would you go on a spending spree without knowing the effect it would have on your bank account? Polling is the bank statement that gives you the exact data you need to make great decisions.

The political environment is assessed.

Another strength of polling is the ability to gauge how the race evolves after the bullets start flying downrange. It’s a handy tool to ensure that the tone of your campaign is palatable to the voters. If you need to make a change, you’ll have some insight that’ll help you make strategic adjustments.

Don’t get hoodwinked.

A industry-wide problem exists with people who don’t follow the science of survey research, but claim to offer a polling product. A poorly designed and executed poll is highly dangerous and adverse to helping you in the ways mentioned above. Take great care when choosing the right polling partner. Ask about the skill sets they have and the methodology they use. Moreover, ensure it’s not IVR-only sample collection, and find out how they stratify collection and weight the sample when complete.

Cory Brown is vice president of data and strategy for Cygnal, which provides polling, data management, targeting and integrated communications for candidates, groups and businesses. He served his country in the U.S. Army both stateside and overseas in reconnaissance and combat engineer units.