Business, Politics, & Society

What Is a Campaign Pollster? Learn How Pollsters Conduct Political Polls

Written by MasterClass

Aug 20, 2019 • 4 min read

Political polls get a lot of coverage in the national news media, but most Americans would be hard-pressed to tell you much about the political professionals who design and execute opinion polling. Pollsters play an incredibly important role in helping to craft political messaging and track voter sentiment.

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What Is a Pollster?

A pollster is responsible for conducting the campaign’s survey research and focus groups, analyzing the results, and interpreting their implications for campaign messaging and strategy. Pollsters work to design polls that track popular opinion of political issues and candidates. They consult directly with candidates to implement campaign strategies based on polling results and work under the campaign manager.

What Does a Pollster Do?

Pollsters use survey instruments (or questionnaires) to collect quantitative data on the opinions of voters and their reactions to potential campaign messages, both for and against a candidate, and track voter attitudes and perceptions over time.

What Are the Main Responsibilities of a Campaign Pollster?

Many pollsters are usually partisan political operatives, meaning they work in-house for a political party or a candidate. This doesn’t necessarily mean they will work strictly for one party, however, and many pollsters work on campaigns for both Republicans and Democrats.

The major responsibilities of a campaign pollster include:

  • Designing polls. At different points in a campaign, polls are designed for slightly different purposes. At the beginning of a campaign, pollsters run what’s called a benchmark poll of likely voters to gauge the starting level of support and enthusiasm for the candidate they are working for. After that, campaigns will generally conduct what are called “brushfire polls.” Brushfire polls are conducted to gauge changes in voter sentiment during a race. A common brushfire poll seeks to measure a candidate’s popularity by checking “favorable” and “unfavorable” ratings. For the duration of the campaign, pollsters will generally run tracking polls that track changes in the candidate’s approval and allow the campaign to adjust messaging and strategy accordingly. Learn more about the different types of polls in America here.
  • Choosing samples. One of the most important jobs that a pollster has is designing population samples for their polls. The population that a poll is seeking to target is much bigger than the sample population of actual respondents. Pollsters carefully analyze demographic data for the electorate and design a smaller sample with similar demographic makeup. Creating an accurate sample is essential for a poll to be accurate and useful.
  • Political strategy. Pollsters on political campaigns often pull double duty as campaign strategists. The purpose of polling in a campaign is to tailor strategy and messaging to the electorate. Pollsters have a unique insight into what resonates in the population they are targeting and often advise campaigns directly on how to tailor their messages.

What Issues Do Independent Pollsters Canvas?

Many pollsters work for non-partisan polling firms like the Pew Research Center, Harris, or Quinnipiac. These firms run regular opinion polls on a whole host of subjects.

  • Hot button issues. Third-party polling firms are constantly running polls to track public opinion on controversial political issues. Though most polling coverage in the media is focused on the electoral race, a large percentage of the opinion research that polling firms conduct is focused directly on the political issues themselves. These polls track the sentiment of the electorate and are used by politicians to inform legislative actions and campaign messaging.
  • Congressional races. Nationwide polling firms don’t have the resources to cover every single congressional and senate seat up for election, so they generally focus on a shortlist of competitive districts and battleground states. These polls are usually only come up in the direct run-up to election day.
  • Presidential election. Independent polling firms kick into high gear during a presidential election campaign. In the United States, presidential campaigns are multi-year affairs and polling is in high demand during this time. Polling firms constantly run polls targeting different populations simultaneously to track enthusiasm and voter preference in different states and demographics.
  • Approval ratings. Outside of election season, opinion research firms run regular polls tracking approval ratings for various political leaders. For example, the president’s approval rating gets a lot of coverage in the national media as a barometer for the political opinions of the electorate.
  • International polling. Polling firms also conduct polls in international markets. Because of the difference in governmental structure, polls must be structured and conducted differently.

Pollsters may do their work behind the scenes, but the polls they design are integral parts of every political campaign. Whether you’re looking to get involved in politics or simply want to become a more informed, engaged citizen, knowing the ins and outs of campaign strategies is paramount to understanding how political campaigns work. In their MasterClass, David Axelrod and Karl Rove, the respective architects of former President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush’s historic election victories, provide valuable insight into how to develop a campaign platform and reach an audience with consistent messaging.

Learn more about politics and campaign strategy in David Axelrod and Karl Rove’s MasterClass.

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