Mark Blumenthal | August 27, 2008
Topics: Barack Obama , Bounce , David Plouffe , Focus Groups , Gallup Daily , Targeting , Turnout
How is the Obama campaign using surveys and other data to guide their strategy? What do they think about national polling generally, and the Gallup Daily tracking in particular? This morning, I got an earful on both subjects at an on-the-record briefing by Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, communications director Dan Pfeiffer and campaign advisor Anita Dunn for a dozen or so editors and executives of the Atlantic Media company and the National Journal Group.
My colleague Marc Ambinder has already blogged some highlights from the session. Let me fill in a few more details that touched on the campaigns use of polling, research and targeting.
First, Ambinder reported on this exchange on national polling:
We tried to get Plouffe to react to a spate of national polls showing a tightening race.
"All we care about is these 18 states," he said. He repeated, with emphasis, that the campaign does not care about national polling. Instead, the campaign's own identification, registration and canvassing efforts provide the data he uses to determine where to invest money and resources.
Plouffe also emphasized that the internal polling the campaign does is focused on those same 18 states,** and that their real concern is not the horse race results but the "data underneath." Later, he added, "the top-line [polling data] doesn't tell you anything." Rather, they focus on who the "true undecideds" are, "how they're likely to break," and what messages will best persuade them.
The Gallup Daily tracking poll is apparently a particular sore point. When asked whether they were unhappy that the Biden announcement had not produced a bounce in national polls, Plouffe shot back: "How do you determine a bounce. . . from the Gallup Daily?" The Gallup Daily, he added is "something we don't pay attention to," he said again.
Communications director Dan Pfieffer later put it more bluntly, expressing unhappiness with the "inordinate focus on bad polling" by the media and also in the routine misinterpretation of sampling noise in the Gallup Daily poll. "The Gallup Daily is the worst thing that's happened in journalism in 10 years," he said.
Plouffe also warned against "making too big an assumption" based on focus groups when asked about the Frank Luntz group of undecided voters that received a fair amount of attention this week. "We certainly don't use [focus] groups to make assessments of swing voters," he said. They conduct focus groups, mostly "to hear people talk" about the issues and candidates, but when it comes to identifying "true undecided" voters, their emphasis is on quantitative data, including traditional surveys and data on registration and vote history collected from lists and supplemented with information gleaned through direct voter contact.
I asked about Marc Ambinder's report of the "data" collected by the Obama campaign Monday night that left them with a "high degree of confidence" that Michelle Obama's speech went over well in their 18 target states. Marc had inferred that "the campaign ran several focus groups" Monday might, but I'm skeptical given the logistical challenge of doing traditional focus groups in 18 states in one night. My guess is that they ran some sort of online test, and asked Plouffe if he could add more detail:
That information "will have to be a mystery," enjoying the play on my nomme de Internet. He did say that their efforts to monitor undecided voters features "not through the traditional methods of quantitative and qualitative research. We also have hundreds of thousands of contacts [made] every night."
Much of the briefing covered specifics on the focus on turnout by the Obama campaign and their massive effort to "adjust the electorate" to their benefit. He cited several examples, including Florida where he claimed that roughly 600,000 African Americans that were registered but did not vote in 2004, with more than half of that group coming from African Americans under 40 years of age. "If we just execute on turnout" in Florida, he said, "we're going to be bumping up on our win number." They also believe they can keep states like Virginia and North Carolina competitive if they "blow the doors off turnout."
The briefing included much more that my National Journal and Atlantic Media colleagues will be reporting on later today and this week, and I will try to add links here as they become available. I'm also likely to say more at some point about the Obama campaign's overall approach to research and strategy based on these comments.
Finally, please note that the verbatim quotations above are from my notes. We are hoping to post a full transcript later in the week. [Update/Correction: With a transcript in hand, I have corrected a few minor wording errors. In the original version, I erroneously quoted Dan Pfeiffer describing the Gallup Daily as "the worst thing that's happened in journalism in 20 years" -- he actually said 10 years.]
Update - Here's a quick response via email from Gallup's Frank Newport:
These are the same types of sentiments that have been expressed since George Gallup's first presidential polls in 1936. Campaigns like to control the narrative, and don't like outside intrusion in their story lines. Bottom line: The American public is vastly interested, and always has been, in where a presidential race stands during a campaign. Gallup (and others) can help provide a scientific answer to that question, using careful methodology and deliberate analysis. Without independent polling, the public would be reliant on campaign operatives' self-promoting insights on where the race stands, or on journalists' guesses. And, of course, polling provides a vast array of insights into the dynamics and currents of a campaign and represents the voters' views, thoughts, and wishes.
**Update 2: The 18 states that the Obama campaign is focusing on are: Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia.