Poll Script Writing 101: What Questions Should You Be Asking?

They key to asking the right questions is to ask questions. Let me rephrase that. The key to having questions in your political survey script (also known as an instrument) that will give you the information you want is to first ask yourself some questions.

1) Why am I doing a poll?

This may seem too obvious to even bother asking yourself, but do it anyway. You might be surprised that the conversation in your head goes something like this:

You: Why am I doing a poll?
You Response: To see how my candidate is doing…obviously!
You: What do you mean: “how my candidate is doing?”
You Response: Polling!
You: Huh?

Instead of risking the awkwardness of your two selves needing to separate from each other, I’d like to propose a different discussion to have with yourself:

You: What, specifically, am I trying to find out from this poll?
You Response: If people like my candidate.
You: Do I care what issues are important to voters?
You Response: Yes
You: Do I know what issues are important to them?
You Response: No
You: Thanks self! Now I have a direction.

Wasn’t that better? Now you’ve got a great starting point for your script and know you need to do more than a simple ballot test.

2) What’s the lay of the land?

Now that you’ve started to identify some broad objectives, it’s time to look more closely at the race itself. For example, is there an incumbent in the race (including your candidate)? Then ask about job approval, if things are on the right track or wrong track, or if the incumbent deserves to be reelected.

Is it an open seat? Then ask if people prefer someone with political experience or someone from outside of politics. Is it a down-ballot race? Then ask about a well-known candidate at the top of the ballot to see if there are threats or opportunities for your client. Is there a, shall we say, media-dominating occupant of the oval office? Find out about that person’s favorability among your voters. You can also do the same for a popular or polarizing statewide officeholder. These questions are great for benchmarking purposes even if your candidate isn’t directly associated with the person being tested.

3) Should I ask about issues?

Yes. Honestly, the only time the answer to this question is no is if it’s almost election day and therefore too late to do anything with the information. Other than that, it’s too inexpensive to put in at least one or two issue or message-testing questions not do it. It’s always cheaper to ask a few more question in a survey than to go back into the field with another poll.

What you ask about and how you ask it is a function of how early in the race it is and how much research you have on the opposition. If it’s early in the race, you may not yet know what political messages will resonate with voters. In that case, test a few different messages and see what level of support they get form respondents. Likewise, include a question asking respondents to pick their top issue from a list. That way, you can see if there’s an issue you haven’t focused on that’s important to voters so you can craft a message to address it. If you have good opposition research, test the main findings (“If you knew a candidate did (fill in the blank)…”) to see if they impact voter sentiment toward a candidate. Just because something looks really negative about a candidate to you doesn’t mean voters agree. Don’t ASSume it will move the needle – ask.

If it’s later in the race, you want to narrow the focus to see if messages are sticking. Instead of “If you knew…,” ask “Are you aware…” Also, are there issues that have become important in the district since your last poll? Ask about them to see how they impact your race.

4) Could my question be shorter, and would that help with collecting the best sample possible?

We have listened to thousands of survey calls, and voters aren’t capable of remembering even a few lines of information and tell you their opinion of it. Run your message and issue tests through the “direct mail front panel” test or the “TV tagline” test. If it won’t fit on these, you’re probably confusing the voters and they’re only giving a response to a key or trigger word contained within.

Putting it all together

Let’s revisit that last conversation you had with yourself, expound on it, and come up with the structure of a poll:

You: What, specifically, are you trying to find out from this poll?
You Response: If people like my candidate.
You: Do you care what issues are important to them?
You Response: Yes
You: Do you know what issues are important to them?
You Response: No
You: What office is your candidate running for?
You Response: State senate
You: Is your candidate the incumbent?
You Response: It’s an open seat.
You: Does your candidate have political experience?
You Response: No. He’s a small business owner and has never run for office.
You: Is Donald Trump still President?
You Response: Yes
You: You got me there, self.

That quick discussion results in the following structure for your poll script:

  1. Screener
  2. Trump Fav/Unfav
  3. Well-known statewide officeholder Fav/Unfav
  4. Your candidate Fav/Unfav
  5. Other candidate Fav/Unfav
  6. Insider/outsider question
  7. Ballot test
  8. Top issue question
  9. Age
  10. Gender (BY OBSERVATION – Trust us on this one too)
  11. Tons and tons of demographic, geographic, and sociographic data from the voter file that you don’t have to ask because we put it on your survey at no charge


The good thing is, you don’t have to do any of this on your own. Your pollster – and I happen to know a really good one you should call – can help you figure out the questions you need to ask, including the ones you need to ask yourself.