Messaging on Issues Getting Even More Localized

Author: Peter Shafer

The public polling industry has suffered several major setbacks over the past five or so election cycles because of perceived inaccuracies in aligning with actual election outcomes.

While public opinion polling was created back in the 1930s, it was never intended to be a “predictive” tool for elections. But as polling evolved and polling methodologies were fine-tuned, public polling became very accurate in aligning with actual voting outcomes. Since the 2004 elections, using polling data to predict the outcome of elections has been in question.

Public Opinion Polling in 2021

Campaigns and politicians still rely on polling to run their campaigns.  But in the 2021 election cycle, the problem for Democrat campaigns may have been that they either paid too little attention to the public polling numbers or they simply disregarded what the polls were revealing. In addition, the media’s coverage of public polling data and their sponsorship of public polls for their news coverage have called into question the validity and reliability of these public opinion polls.

Messaging on Issues Getting Even More Localized

Since this summer, and especially after the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, both state and national polls showed personal and social issues taking on even more importance and urgency for many Americans. Many polls uncovered people’s frustrations and fears about their personal health and safety even as far back as the Spring of 2021 (the one-year anniversary of the pandemic).

Most national polls focused on President Biden and Congress versus state and local politics. This focus explains why some experts, pundits, and Democrats did not properly forecast or predict the very strong Republican showing in Virginia and New Jersey.

Public Polls vs. In-House Polls

As with most political campaigns, political consultants and campaign staff use public opinion polls and internal or in-house polls. In-house polls are designed differently and measure several different variables or motivations. There is a case to be made that today, in-house polling may be revealing more about the true sentiment and intensity in various statewide and federal races.

Additionally, various digital marketing metrics are making it easier to understand how digital advertising, digital fundraising, and overall digital persuasion impact campaigns’ “get out the message” and “get out the vote” performance.

National Issues, Local Focus

Virginia Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin and his campaign staff must have paid much closer attention to their state polling data and the national polls on key issues.  The campaign team, led by Kristen Davison at Axiom, crafted messages that addressed those key issues – education, the economy, and personal wellbeing (whether that was related to COVID-19 or overall health issues).

The Associated Press, using its AP VoteCast methodology, conducted polling in Virginia right up to Election Day and reported that the three top issues that concerned Virginians were:

  1. The Economy and Jobs: 37% (versus 24% nationally, according to October 2021 Gallup Poll statistics
  2. Coronavirus: 19% (versus 21% from Gallup Poll related to how the government is handling the COVID-19  response)
  3. Education: 17% (versus 1% nationally according to Gallup Poll)

Governor-elect Youngkin used these key issues effectively in his speeches, digital marketing, and advertising.

Looking Ahead

From a polling point of view, there is still room to improve heading into the 2022 Election cycle for public opinion pollsters. The two key areas public opinion polling firms are trying to address and fix as quickly as possible are (1) getting people to participate in polls – which means getting much better at target audiences for participation and (2) asking new, better, and more predictive types of questions. For example, many polling firms use standard, “tried-and-true” questions in their polls, mainly to create consistency over time. But those questions are no longer as effective, accurate, or predictive. And they certainly do not measure the frustration and anger in the electorate.