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Dispatches: Thoughts From A Young Pollster

Topics: consultants , ideology , Pollsters , public opinion , strategy , tactics

This post is part of Pollster.com's week-long series on Stan Greenberg's new book, Dispatches from the War Room.

Perhaps the two most appropriate topics for the young Republican pollster participating in this discussion are 1)the idea that younger consultants are more tactics-focused and that 2)the role of ideology hand in hand with opinion research that guides the creation of a public agenda. I'll attempt to give my thoughts on each.

First, I truly appreciate Greenberg's defense of the role of the pollster in advising leaders and participating in the cultivation of public support for policy goals. The Bush Administration was not the first political operation to proudly declare they aren't looking to polls to set their agenda, nor will they be the last. But Greenberg is spot on in noting that in a democratic society, gaining the trust and support of the people is essential to effective governance.

When I explain "what pollsters do" to acquaintances and family members who are not closely familiar with what pollsters do (besides call them during dinner time), I like to say that we are the "reality check".

In the case of pollsters, we are a special group of intermediaries between Americans and their leaders. Constituent mail, phone calls...these things show what the most activated pieces of the public are thinking. Democratic elections may be the purest expressions of public opinion between a public and its leaders. But it is the job of a pollster to provide an accurate and representative picture of what the electorate is thinking in the mean time. We provide the reality check. There's a lot of talk about "inside the Beltway thinking" - as a pollster, we get to be the antidote. If my work as a pollster enhances a leader's connection to the electorate and helps those in Washington maintain a focus on the important priorities of the people who elected them, I can feel good about what I've done.

A disturbing trend I've noticed however is a trend toward finding the "silver bullet", the very tactical focus that Greenberg references in particular relation to younger consultants. There is an idea that has been made popular by some pollsters that all you need are the right words...that an idea, regardless of that idea's merit, can gain traction with the public and can become the Next Big Thing if only the right alliterative device is used to name and define the problem. The right words and rhetorical gimmicks will win over the public, regardless of the merits of the policy.

This isn't just in the polling/messaging/strategy realm. I've seen the belief that the right piece of opposition research or the right witty negative ad is all that is needed for victory. And so these tactics are the focus, because they are exciting, they provide the "thrill" of the game that Greenberg mentions. I'm heartened to read that Greenberg identifies the importance of a bigger vision, the importance of issues and sound policy, and his reference to V.O. Key's quote that "voters are not fools". Today, that belief still remains unorthodox in too many places in the world of the political consultancy.

What is missing all too often is the idea that polling can help cultivate public support by focusing on those big ideas. Another way I like to think of a good pollster is like a debate coach. So you as a leader have decided to pursue a specific policy goal. What are the best arguments to use to build support? Note, I'm using the term "arguments". Not words. Not to diminish the importance of framing, but I believe a pollster is far more effective when helping to craft arguments that are sound and intelligent. There's a big difference between good positioning and gimmicks. Pollsters should be in the business of the former, not the latter.

Where I'll disagree with Greenberg slightly is in his criticism of some other contemporary pollsters. He cites another pollster's belief in "the not-so-silent majority of Americans who reject ideological soundness in favor of the sound center" and goes on to discuss the problem of pollsters who try to craft tactics (and maybe strategy) without any endgame greater than...well, put simply, winning. Fair enough. But I don't think that a belief that most Americans are not strongly ideological or in search of ideological purity diminishes the role of ideas. I'm an enormous fan of Dr. Morris Fiorina's work in Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized Electorate where he explores just how large the Big Middle is. And from what I've seen in research I've been a part of, Americans rarely see ideology as the endgame. Americans want outcomes.

My mentor in survey research, David Winston, often says that ideology itself is like a screwdriver. By itself, it's just a screwdriver. Its worth comes from what it can be used for, what outcomes it can create (building a swing set, etc.). I'd venture that the electorate is full of more Americans who are looking for outcomes than processes. And thus the existence of a "big middle" doesn't necessarily mean polling should become focused on the little tactics or the dumbing down of politics. Quite the opposite.

I'd be interested in the comments of the other participants in this forum on the question - to what extent does the size of the "big middle" in American politics help or hinder the ability for politicians to pursue the big ideas?

 

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