November 3, 2020
So here we are on Election Day. Prognosticators are poring over the most recent polling data, each laying bets on different swing states where results, come election night, could be teetering on a knife’s edge. Which of those so-called swing states will go Biden’s way and which will tilt toward Trump? Pundits are busy mapping out each candidate’s path to an Electoral College victory. Little attention is being paid to the popular vote; conventional wisdom dismissing this metric as an ill-suited barometer for the Electoral College. After all, there are plenty of examples in recent memory where the eventual occupant of the White House, the current one included, did not manage to capture a plurality of voters. The stakes are high for this US election, not only for Americans, but the rest of the world. Despite consistent polling data pointing to a Biden victory, one journalist summed up the collective angst of a divided electorate (regardless of what side you support) as ‘hope being replaced by trepidation’.
The polls got it woefully wrong last time. I remember it well (we all probably do). As parents of two daughters, Beth and I hosted a gathering of friends that night back in 2016 anticipating the election of the first ever female, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to the highest office in the United States and the most powerful position in the world. The prospect of witnessing the thickest of glass ceilings shatter in our lifetime could go neither unnoticed nor uncelebrated. We all know how that ‘would be’ celebration turned out as our guests thanked us for the hospitality, then left in stunned disbelief. This was not the first time that polls missed the mark, and it will no doubt be the last. However, it reminds us starkly just how precarious opinion measurement can be.
Reflecting on such a monumental misread, we can understand how the insights business has come under attack for the better part of the last decade. Opinion measurement is not as simple as it looks. The definition of ‘opinion’ alone raises all sorts of misgivings: A view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge. So, in a world where we cannot agree on the facts, where fake news or ‘alternative facts’ are trotted out as plausible deniability, we canvass people’s opinions. Equally, in a world where people may or may not possess the knowledge to even express an opinion, where conspiracy theories litter the social media discourse, we rely on how they answer the very hypothetical question: How do you intend to vote?
Democracy rightfully ensures that everyone has a voice, but polling needs to employ a range of strategies to provide context to these opinions. John Laschinger (whom many of you know) triangulates voting intentions with how voters answer other questions such as ‘is the country on the right track or wrong track’ and ‘is it time for a change’, not to mention the issues that matter most to voters. This is where polling data on voting intentions draws meaningful context.
Without that context, analysis amounts to a shallow and simple counting of noses. In a divided country, where casting judgment upon one another is blood sport, sullying our impressions of those who hold differing views, such a rudimentary count of Biden versus Trump voting intentions can disguise real intentions and the sentiments underlying them. While social media can unearth some of that genuine sentiment, it is not foolproof. Culturally, social media has made us all to varying degrees hyper-attentive custodians of our personal brands. Admitting support for any candidate could be social suicide depending on the circles in which one travels. That social pressure brings the truthfulness of voting intentions into question masking potentially what might happen at the ballot box.
The tendency for people to lie in focus groups has been a persistent and unfounded criticism of our craft. Shakespeare declared ‘all the world’s a stage’. Social media gives ample audience to that stage imposing on all of us the necessity to play to the crowd. Big data has exploited these doubts in truthfulness much to its advantage. The so-called exhaust from online searches and transactions is the closest data we have to fact. We can confirm with evidence that a click happened, that a transaction was completed, that payment was made, that an inquiry took place, etc. The great tragedy in all of this is that pattern recognition has replaced the posing of questions and we are losing our empathy as marketers in the process.
Opinions are the seam that lets us peer into how people (consumers) think and feel, facts that underpin how we function together as a society. However, politics in the media has separated the accounting for opinion from the dynamics of opinion formation. Without understanding what underlies opinion and voting intentions, we cannot understand how a vote gets earned. The dynamics of it all degrades debate and reduces democracy to crude tribalism. We, the opinion and insights industry, can do better.
We are seeing what ails a society when it is incapable of agreeing on facts. Division and decay ensue. Corporations are no different and alignment on what constitutes truth is critical to mobilizing effort where common truth becomes common cause. Market research has a role to play here, an exciting and illuminating one. However, when polls get it wrong, it undermines our claim on being able to uncover truth. This is where the polling industry does us a disservice in only reporting voting intentions through the media.
While these poll results might be headline-worthy and serve up simple fodder to an electorate with a limited attention span, it ignores the broader contextual questions that matter and help bring clarity to those voting intentions. Equally, we’ve seen so-called focus groups after the Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates reduced to nothing more than a simple ‘show of hands’ in response to questions. None of these portraits of our craft paints a favourable view of what we do as market researchers.
So, as you go about things, remember every question requires multiple other questions to reveal the truth. Triangulation of multiple data points can and does remedy the misreads emerging from consumers fibbing to attend to their personal brands and is necessary to do our jobs in bringing the facts to bear on business issues. The democratic process is what made market research famous, its subservience to media manipulation is what makes it fallible and it is our commitment to our craft by way of well-channeled curiosity and a clever array of questioning techniques that will maintain its claim on facts and truth.
Let’s watch the world unfold tonight.