Pollsters have become the pundits of choice in recent elections, appearing in print and broadcast news nearly every day. In most cases, the commentator is advertised as either a Republican or a Democratic pollster. Why are there separate pollsters for Republican and Democratic candidates?
Loyalty. Nonpartisan polling organizations like Pew Research Center or Quinnipiac conduct polls to document public sentiment. A partisan pollster-for-hire has an entirely different focus: to shape public opinion, and, more specifically, the voters’ view of his client. Partisan pollsters sit in on strategy sessions and participate in conference calls with party leadership. In the course of their work, they learn all about their candidate’s weaknesses—what voters don’t like about her, which of her past votes are vulnerabilities among particular demographic groups, and maybe even some dirt from her past. A politician wouldn’t hire someone who might use that information against her, or another member of her party, in the next election. So, while partisan pollsters can work with the opposition on bipartisan issues, they generally decline offers from the other side of the aisle to protect their own business.
A partisan strategy poll is quite different in character from a nonpartisan opinion poll. Neutral polling organizations typically ask broad, objective questions, like, “Do you approve or disapprove of the president’s job performance?” They sometimes ask more detailed questions about demographics, specific issues, and the reason behind the participant’s opinions, but they rarely get into hypothetical inquiries, which are a standard feature of partisan polls. A hired strategic pollster often asks voters whether they’re aware of certain facts, or how their opinions would change if a certain fact were true. They’re also more likely to ask the same question many different ways to see if different language elicits a different response. Republican pollster Frank Luntz famously used this tactic to demonstrate that the public was more opposed to a “death tax” than an “estate tax,” even though the two phrases refer to the same policy. Hired partisan pollsters sometimes release their polls for strategic reasons, such as to convince the public that a candidate is surging, but the overwhelming majority of internal polls stay within the campaign.
In terms of methodology, Democratic and Republican pollsters are more or less identical. The same rules of sampling and statistical analysis apply to both parties. Some say there are subtle stylistic differences, however. Democrats may use focus groups more intensively than Republicans. And each side maintains a special focus on core constituencies. A Republican candidate may be satisfied to know that Latinos constituted 8 percent of her polling sample, approximately in line with the last election. Democrats tend to be more interested in the breakdown of that demographic. What percentage of those Latino participants were drop-off voters, who turn out only in presidential election years? How many were down-ballot voters, who vote on every issue on the ballot rather than just the major contests? Republicans, in contrast, are especially interested in the breakdown of Christian values voters.
The culture of partisan polling also has something to do with reputation. There were very few polling organizations 30 or 40 years ago, when technology was expensive. Now it’s relatively cheap and easy to conduct a poll, and small-time pollsters have sprung up all over the country. They’re involved in elections for state legislatures and even municipal contests. There’s no official licensing scheme for pollsters, so candidates have to rely on word of mouth to separate the true experts from the pretenders. Republicans ask their Republican colleagues to recommend pollsters who worked well for them in past elections, and Democrats do the same.
Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.
Explainer thanks John McLaughlin of McLaughlin & Associates and Joshua Ulibarri of Lake Research Partners.
Video Explainer: How Many Megabytes Does Your Brain Hold?
This video was produced from an original Explainer by Forrest Wickman. Want more questions answered? You can now watch video Explainers at Slate's News Channel on YouTube.