The history and future of polling

by Ruth Whitney ([email protected]) 274 views 

Editor’s note: Ruth Whitney is founder and CEO of InVeritas, a global public affairs firm. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics.
Another election year usually means another round of the latest polling numbers with your morning coffee.

For good reason, when most people think of polling, they think of political campaigns. It’s one of the most accurate tools to best understand how people think or feel about an issue or a candidate.

What we know as “polling” has existed in some form for almost two centuries. In the days before robocalls and online surveys, newspaper reporters often interviewed voters as they left polling places. These impromptu interviews were called “straw polls.” The first recorded straw poll in the U.S. took place in 1824. By the turn of the 20th century, they were common in local and national newspapers.

By the time Franklin Roosevelt was elected President, many pundits considered polling his secret weapon. Roosevelt was the first American president to use a private polling service to advise him on election strategy and public policy. While his record tenure in office was marked by great change, he also maintained great popularity – aided, no doubt, by his use of polling.

Two developments contributed to the elevation of polling to the enterprise we know today: the integration of statistics and mathematics into sampling, and the refinement of polling questions by academics and practitioners specializing in public opinion analysis.

John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign is generally credited with bringing public opinion polling into the mainstream. Every campaign since then has used the tool. And although the tactics have changed, the importance of polling and the information it provides remain the same.

Polls measure public opinion and analyze the public’s perception of a candidate. The results of these polls tell politicians not only what respondents believe, but also identify the messages and approaches that will be most effective in shaping public opinion.

And Corporate America has taken notice.

Once used as a political tool, CEOs and board of directors are now using polling in the business world. Companies use polling to identify possible threats and navigate potentially treacherous waters. Combined with surveys, media analysis, legislative tracking and other industry reports, polling can give corporations an outsiders’ view of what the public is really thinking.

In its 10 Rules for Crisis Management, the Ivy Business Journal recommends using research – including polling – to determine the corporate response when difficult situations arise. Polling can provide essential insight into the magnitude of a crisis and public attitudes about where hidden issues may lie.

But polling isn’t the only tactic the business world has borrowed from politics.

For years, opposition research has been common practice for candidates and political organizations looking to gain an advantage over their opponents. With opposition research, a firm is hired to delve into the candidate’s background and their opponents’ to find potential liabilities – anything from a controversial vote to legal troubles in their past.

This research highlights weaknesses in an opponent and allows the candidate to be proactive about any issues they might face in the election. This research is now used by corporate boards fending off activist investors or waging other public policy fights.

Most public companies won’t do battle with their critics in the same way political opponents will. However, their leaders are still eager to know what is being said about them on the internet. And, increasingly, more of these public companies are willing to engage with their adversaries on social media.

Being armed with the best research makes all the difference in crafting the right response. These tactics have been proven in politics and will undoubtedly have the same success for corporate America.

Which means you can continue to expect a steady stream of polling updates with your morning coffee through election day on Nov. 8.