December 26, 2013

ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL: Polls, if done right, are invaluable

Don Roberts

Polling: Some swear by it, others swear at it. Regardless of how you may feel about polling, it has survived the test of time and is an invaluable tool for all marketers. It is particularly useful in political strategy.

I learned the craft and how to use it through studies at UMA under the late Dr. John Nickerson, a government and politics professor icon. I already miss his counsel. Practical experience in various media and marketing positions also allowed me to gain additional knowledge about polling. When it comes to the use of political polling, I always have found it indispensable. I believe in polls.

First, it is necessary to accept the premise that, in many cases, only a small sample is needed to produce an accurate result. Many people say, “I don’t believe in polls. They’re never right.” Wrong! Polls are almost always correct, unless the methodology is errant or the pollster injects his or her personal bias into interpreting the results.

I have done dozens of polls and have yet to see one that I was involved in proven to be woefully off the mark.

Some examples:

• I told Augusta councilor Mike Byron, after conducting exit polls, that he would win an upset, but by a razor thin margin (depending on the absentee votes). The margin was 18 votes.

• When Dave Rollins ran for citywide council, against three opponents, including the incumbent, our final weekend polling showed him with a two- to three-point lead. Rollins won by 2.2 percent.

• When Bill Stokes ran for mayor, our polls showed a 2-1 margin in his favor. Right on the nose.

• On the statewide level, I told people that from the straw polls I was watching at Republican caucuses a victory for then-candidate Paul Le-Page was assured in the crowded primary. None of the “experts” believed it, but LePage is our governor.

Polls before a political campaign begins, during the campaign and even after provide a rich cornucopia of material to use in making critical decisions, often eventually affecting the election outcome.

In the case of Election Day polling, a treasure trove of information that helps explain the outcome and provides insight into how to approach the next campaign comes pouring out.

The poll quite often doesn’t even have to be that expensive or professional. A person with the essential knowledge about how to conduct a poll, overseeing it and directing a few hires from a good temp agency can yield an accurate result. For years in Augusta, even the famous Duke’s barber shop poll (admittedly amateurish), rarely missed on providing accurate predictions.

Recently, a new statewide poll in Maine politics was conducted by a recognized North Carolina-based national polling firm. It was one of many more to come on the 2014 Maine governor’s race. The only question that I had about on that one was whether the snap sample taken just a couple of days after Democrat candidate Mike Michaud’s announcement about his personal life allowed sufficient time for voters to learn about it.

Since then, however, another poll on the race, this time by a Maine firm, has been released. It confirms that, despite a very small gain by LePage, Michaud still leads, by one point, a margin considered a technical dead heat (within the margin of error).

It’s going to be a long political year.

What are the current polls telling us about people’s attitude towards government? Rasmussen recently decided to poll the public on that question. The result showed that most Americans now seem to doubt the integrity of all three branches of government.

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