How Is Rick Santorum Running a Campaign Without Conducting a Single Poll?

The new science of winning campaigns.
March 20 2012 6:35 PM

Can You Win a Campaign Without Conducting Polls?

Rick Santorum is giving it a shot. 

(Continued from Page 1)

It is both easier and more difficult to get by without your own polls than it was a half-century ago. Cheap automated phone polls conducted by media and academic institutions—led this year by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, notable for both its ubiquity and coquettish tweets teasing surveys still in the field—have made quick survey data more plentiful than ever. Santorum’s campaign compiles and synthesizes public polling to guide its understanding of the horse race, according to Brabender, and usually has enough information to track the candidate’s standing in various states, and relative strengths and weaknesses against his opponents. Staffers, including deputy political director Nick Pappas, look for friendly terrain by scouring county or district-level results in past state or federal primaries built around a similar ideological architecture. In many states, the combined 2008 performance of Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson offers a rough guide to Santorum’s potential in an area. “We do extremely well with Huckabee voters,” says Brabender.

Santorum’s team is still talking to people about their individual opinions. Since Iowa, the campaign has, estimates Biundo, canvassed hundreds of thousands of likely voters by calling them directly on the phone—split roughly in half between calls from vendors’ call centers and ones placed by volunteers through an online home-calling tool or at Pennsylvania phone banks. So-called “ID” calls target reliable Republican primary voters—and, in some cases, Democrats and independents who can participate—with scripts asking which candidate they support and their views on issues including abortion, gun rights, and economic policy. Voters identified as supporters are sent get-out-the-vote mail as a primary or caucus approaches, while those marked as undecided are lined up for follow-up calls. Those who remain undecided but look like prospective Santorum voters get targeted mail aiming to persuade them until the end. “We try to find out what their one issue is,” says Biundo.

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Those calls are not randomly assigned—the campaign is hunting for Santorum supporters to turn out—so they have little predictive value and do not follow traditional polling methodologies. (Scripts encourage volunteers to make a pitch to undecided voters.) But Santorum advisers say the large volume of calls the campaign places, typically far more than any one public or private pollster would make in a given week, allows them to detect movement in the electorate. Even though no polls had shown Santorum winning Mississippi (the New York Times’ statistical modeler Nate Silver gave him a 2 percent chance), Biundo says he was “surprised on election night but not shocked” when his candidate won the popular vote there. The campaign’s ID calls had shown nearly 50 percent of Mississippi voters previously identified as undecided breaking for Santorum in the closing days. By aggregating the results of those calls, Santorum’s campaign has a good idea of who its supporters are, combining basic demographic variables (like age and gender) available on the voter file with geographic indicators like median home price and household income of the areas in which they live. “We carry that demographic profile with us to the next state,” says Biundo. “But every state’s different.”

Indeed, surfing on public information to guide strategy and voluminous ID calls to direct tactics may no longer be a sustainable model now that the nominating contest has turned into a hunt for delegates. Many states allocate their delegates by congressional district, yet public polls hardly ever segment their results by that category (or, in all but the smallest states, conduct enough interviews to have enough respondents in each district to be meaningful). Nearly all states have just redrawn their maps as part of the decennial redistricting process, meaning past electoral results don’t translate well. Many states in the second half of the nominating calendar, like Illinois, haven’t featured a competitive Republican presidential primary in decades. Biundo acknowledges that the one place his own polls would be helpful is the puzzle increasingly dominating the campaign’s attention: how to allocate resources among congressional districts with goal of maximizing Santorum’s delegate gains.

For now Brabender does not plan on backing down from an organizational structure that he says reflects his candidate’s Bulworthian truth-telling instincts. The campaign’s only formal public-opinion monitoring is whatever the candidate picks up interacting with voters at his town-hall meetings. “Santorum senses the message, and we follow him,” says Brabender. “Do we have as much information when we make decisions? No,” he says. “But from a media consultant’s standpoint, I don’t have anyone who is saying ‘the ads aren’t working’ or telling me ‘here’s what the candidate has to say.’ ” Even so, there may be limits to such blissful ignorance: Brabender won’t commit to remaining pollster-free if he needs to orchestrate a general-election campaign for Santorum.

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