Survey Research [Polling] Wins Championships (and Elections)

We have officially passed the halfway mark in 2018 midterm primary season. As campaigns in 30 states move their focus to the general election, strategies must change as well.

Every campaign’s strategy has three core components: money, media, and message. While all three components are intertwined, the third component – messaging – undergoes the greatest change.

While successful messaging can be difficult in primaries due to the need to draw contrast between like-minded candidates, general election environments come with their own set of pitfalls, especially in purple states (looking at you Florida, Colorado, and now Georgia).

General election campaigns in competitive states must walk a fine line between motivating their partisan base and pulling in independent voters. At the most basic level of campaign strategy, this requires two sets of messages for very different voter blocks.

The same messages that will motivate a very conservative or liberal base most likely will not resonate with independent voters, or worse, those messages could push nonpartisans into your opponent’s camp. After all, there’s a reason those voters didn’t associate with a partisan base.

How do you know what messages will most effectively move the needle in your favor in November? You could assume (I think we all know what happens when you assume), OR you could test your potential messages before launching your assault.

Reading the campaign field requires more than simply gauging your initial ballot standing or calculating the partisan makeup of likely general election voters. Effective campaign quarterbacks know how they’re going to win. They measure their strengths and weaknesses, anticipate their opponent’s attacks, and put together a winning drive.

Here’s how you can leverage message testing to avoid general election pitfalls and dominate the campaign gridiron:

1. Test Your Messaging Early

The most effective quarterbacks read the defense before snapping the ball, not after the pass is thrown. Don’t wait until your campaign is trailing on the ballot to see what issues and messages resonate with your targeted voters.

Before printing campaign collateral, scripting commercials, or placing ads, conduct a benchmark survey that tests the full battery of possible messages. This may have a higher upfront cost, but you will have a positive return on investment. Mitigating wasted time and resources is key to making the most of your limited campaign budget.

2. Watch Your Blindside

While it’s likely that you can anticipate which messages your opponent will use, it’s hard to truly gauge the effectiveness of those messages without testing.

When conducting your initial benchmark, avoid only testing positive messages on your candidate and negatives on your opponent. This may seem like the best route for your immediate needs, but to get the true lay of the land you need to know how voters will respond to every message they are likely to receive.

3. Diversify Your Attack

All campaign messages are not created equal, and message response can vary across different subsets of voters. Generally speaking, we consider a message to be effective if it moves at least 60% of survey respondents. 

It’s important to note that while a message could fail to meet this benchmark with respondents overall, its effectiveness could spike with a particular subset. In turn, you can direct these messages to highly targeted voter groups to maximize your impact.

To do this, you can’t skimp on your survey sample size. Higher sample sizes provide greater insight in the crosstabs (read: geographic breaks, demographic groups, and ideological persuasions) and reveal voter segment trends that would otherwise be missed.


Don’t put your campaign in a 4th-and-long situation (Is it football season yet?). Tom Brady isn’t stepping on a field unprepared. Championships are won on the practice field through preparation, and campaigns are no different. A benchmark is your political practice field. You’ve got to game plan for your opponent’s attacks and hone a message that resonates with voters. Don’t step on the political field without a proven game plan crafted by a seasoned political-research veteran.