Long-term campaign planning

How far can campaigns plan in advance these days? It seems like the planning horizon is getting shorter each election cycle. And it’s going to change how we poll.

Once upon a time, this was the season when pollsters would be conducting comprehensive benchmark studies about a year out from the next round of primaries. We would attest, with a straight face and devout belief, that these benchmark studies would provide a roadmap to guide the rest of the campaign. This claim validated the significant financial investment campaigns made in their benchmark surveys. The investment offered good value, like a single sack of groceries that stocks the pantry for 18 months.

The typical 1980s polling proposal and plan might look like this: a benchmark survey a year before the primary; two brushfire surveys and tracking before the primary Election Day; a major poll right after the primary or around Labor Day; and two fall brushfire surveys and tracking before the November voting.

It was all so predictable and ordered. The only variable was when we conducted the brushfire polls. Usually these would be reserved for judging the efficacy of an opponent’s attack ad or weighing the significance of a major issue that develops during the course of a campaign. There was some flexibility, and unscheduled polls were added, but it was relatively rare.

Then came the 24-hour news channels, the Internet and all the other developments that have accelerated the rate of change in campaigns. Suddenly, it seemed laughable to think a poll conducted in May or June, 18 months before an election, could inform any decisionmaking even 12 months into the future. So polling, like everything else, seems to be moving toward a quarter-by-quarter mentality. The notion of long-term planning seems to be out of fashion, or at least impractical.

The corporate world understands this mentality. American public corporations are trapped in the quarterly report cycle. It’s not nearly as important to work on next year’s final bottom line as it is to spruce up this quarter’s balance sheet. This is why some corporations decide to get off the treadmill, buy up their stock and go private. That way they can focus on the company’s long-term success rather than trying to please a stock analyst next week or month.

Campaigns know this mentality. They are conducting some polls to try and impress Charlie Cook, Stu Rothenberg, the NRCC or NRSC. They are fielding more and more brushfires, being responsive to the news of the day rather than focused on shaping the news. Poll questions center on gauging reactions to current events rather than understanding long-term, deeply held values of voters that may transcend today’s headlines.

This is the crux of the problem. Campaign polling that spotlights the temporal will never moor a campaign past the next 30 to 60 days. If you look at a polling questionnaire and it’s all about the news, there can be little wonder that the poll has a short shelf-life. If we could get campaign researchers refocused on discovering the longer-term values and psychological belief-systems of voters, a survey might provide an 18-month roadmap.

This can be a tough sell to candidates and campaigns, however. Questions about voters’ values and beliefs can seem ethereal to a candidate more interested in his current name ID or approval of his latest plan for community college scholarships. Understanding seminal attitudes toward topics like the role and size of government, however — overarching attitudes that will shape specific short-term opinions toward specific policy options — might increase the long-term value of a campaign’s investment in polling.

I don’t know whether polling will ever again have the long-term planning value for campaigners that it once did, but we can do better.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.