The first 4 things: All About Your Audience

This is the first of two posts.

Richard Kirsch, Director
Our Story – The Hub for American Narratives

Polling and other public opinion research is often the go-to tool for guiding messages and communication in issue campaigns. But polls are often misused and the message advice from pollsters can easily do disservice to winning campaigns and to advancing progressive values and core beliefs.
Here are 10 big cautions you should be aware of in using polling to inform messages for issue campaigns.

1 – Just because a message polls the highest doesn’t mean it’s the best message
The first thing to understand is that just because a message polls higher than other messages, that doesn’t mean it’s the strongest campaign message. The first question to ask is: who the message poll well with? The second is whether the differences between messages are statistically significant?

2 – Who’s the audience? Mobilize the mobilizables.
Unlike elections, issue campaigns are not won by majorities. Issue campaigns are won by constituents organized to put enough pressure on legislators that they will do what the constituents want. Your message first and foremost must motivate activists to take action, including grassroots lobbying, social media activism and joining in rallies and protests.
What this means is that polls should identify and report on your base – people who share your values on this issue and other issues. You’ll want to choose messages that do well with base voters.

3 – Who’s the audience? Persuade the persuadables.
To build more support for an issue, we need to persuade the persuadables. It’s also important to remember that the way we make long term change is by moving more people in the middle towards our values and worldview.
Polls should identify and report separately on people who are not firmly in your base and those who also are not firmly in the “opposition.” The messages you want will score well with base and persuadables.

4 – Who’s the audience? Alienating the opposition.
One reason that some questions poll higher is that by including progressive and conservative values in a message, more people agree. But that may not actually be helpful to winning and can be self-defeating over time.
Here are the problems with using a message that picks up support from the opposition:
• It usually comes at a cost of support from the people you most care about, the base.
• It confuses the middle. Our goal over time is to move the middle, by reinforcing the strength of progressive ideas. We can’t do that if we repeat conservative messages.
• The opposition may agree with the message but that doesn’t mean they will actually change their issue position. For example, strong conservatives will agree that there is too much money in politics but they still will not support public financing of elections; that contradicts their core beliefs on government and taxation.
It’s often surprising what will alienate the opposition. For example, Lake Research Partners, working with Anat Shenker Osorio, found that the opposition actually reacts negatively to the statement, “Every working parent should get paid enough to care for their kids and set them off toward 
a great future.” That’s a perfect example of a powerful message that will appeal to the base and middle and alienate the opposition.
It is possible for strong messages to be supported by the opposition – particularly if they don’t violate rule 10 below. But don’t ever reject a message that does well with the base and swing because it scores poorly with opponents. That’s usually a sign it’s a good message for you.
For more on understanding the theory of change behind polling audiences read this great blog post “Please All and You’ll Please None” by Anat Shenker Osorio and Celinda Lake.

If you would like help navigating your work with pollsters, please let me know.

Go to the second post to read points 5-10 for lots more on why the messages that test the highest are not always the best.