Can advocacy campaigns rely on polling data?

Key points:
Political polling is “done”: Luntz
Advocacy and public affairs industry needs to rethink intel gathering
HUMINT, proxy issues, sentiment analysis, online panels

Among the biggest losers of the 2020 campaign is the political polling industry. “The political polling profession is done,” Frank Luntz told Axios the day after virtually every poll was shown to be very, very wrong. “It is devastating for my industry.”

It wasn’t just national presidential polls that failed. State polls ranged from a little off to just plain garbage. For example, every single poll of the Maine Senate race had incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins losing to Democrat Sara Gideon. A Change Research poll released on Nov. 2 showed Gideon beating Collins by 8 points. In the end Collins bested Gideon by nine points [!], 51% - 42%.

Luntz is right. Political polling is dead. The only people imbibing this swill anymore are horserace junkies and reporters racing to tweet out data that supports their narratives.

Now the question becomes: can the advocacy and public affairs industry continue to rely on polling to make decisions about client issues, legislative targets, and messaging?

The short answer is no. With experienced pollsters openly admitting now that large swaths of voters are completely invisible to them, it would be a mistake to rely on polling research when planning an issue campaign.

Consider the case of the disastrous Marsy’s Law campaign in New Hampshire. In January 2018, a poll showed 85% of Granite Staters would support it. Three months, twelve lobbyists and hundreds of thousands of advocacy dollars laters, the measure was destroyed in the New Hampshire House 284-51.

The longer answer is, well, campaigns still need research and for now polling (along with focus groups) is one of only two meaningful ways to obtain it.

So advocacy campaigns will probably still use polling. But how can strategists augment this obviously flawed tool with additional intel resources?


Like America’s intelligence community, advocacy campaigns need to better leverage human intelligence (HUMINT). Polling measures attitudes, which shift constantly. HUMINT can contextualize attitudinal information with institutional knowledge. Intel gathering from on-the-ground resources is more valuable than suspect opinion research.


Every legislator has a record. Advocacy campaigns need to do a better job of identifying and analyzing proxy issues within those records that relate to current legislative battles. This allows campaigns to identify decision makers who have a passion for or history with an issue, something polling cannot adequately do.


Measuring social media sentiments is nothing new. It’s a part of most sophisticated multi-state campaigns. But our experience is that most state campaigns don’t adequately identify the influencers whose sentiment actually matters. Garbage in, garbage out.


Because online panels are generally cheaper than polls, the stakes aren’t as high if they are off and they can be revisited throughout a campaign and updated with new information. Finally, online panels tend to be more qualitative than polls, which means they can provide the context advocacy campaigns need to overcome objections.