The Incompetent Pollster Mystery Solved!

In today's Washington Post, there's an article about pollsters who fail miserably, asking how wrong you have to be to never work again. The answer, of course, is that there is simply no level of wrongness that will keep you from getting more clients. While the article has some interesting information in it, it fails completely to answer the real question: Why does this happen? Well, I'll tell you the answer in a moment. But first here's an excerpt:

A pollster is one of those jobs — like a football lineman or an oil-tanker captain — that normal people tend to notice only when one of these specialized professionals messes up. In that sense, 2012 was a banner year for Republican pollsters. Romney may have lost handily in his quest to become president, but he famously thought he was going to win right up until the last minute.

A lot of that blame fell upon a polling firm called Public Opinion Strategies. Neil Newhouse, who acted as Romney’s top pollster, still doesn’t like to talk about 2012. It’s too fresh. He would rather talk about the work he does now, of which there is still plenty.

So here's why pollsters, just like every other kind of of political consultant, can keep getting plenty of business even when they do a terrible job. The answer lies in who hires political consultants. You may think that candidates do, but that's not really true. Candidates usually sign off on a choice an advisor has made. Sometimes that's their longtime aide who'll be acting as campaign manager, and sometimes it's the "general consultant" whose job it is to hire the staff and coordinate the work of all the other consultants.

If you're a pollster, you have relationships with general consultants who will hire you. So when Biff General gets hired to run a senator's reelection campaign, he says to the senator, "I recommend we use Tad Pollster — I've worked with him before, and he's excellent." Turns out that Biff and Tad are old buddies—they first met working on a campaign in their twenties, and they've been friends ever since. The senator says, "Sounds good, Biff." What the senator doesn't do is spend time researching Tad's past performance to see how good he really is. It's enough that she's heard of Tad, since he's been a prominent pollster for a while, and Biff has recommended him. The senator has a lot better things to do with her time.

Tad may even pay Biff a little kickback as part of this arrangement. (I know that went on twenty years ago when I was doing political consulting, but I can't say whether it still does.) But the point is that merit never enters into any of these decisions as anything but an afterthought. When consultants of any stripe make their pitches, they'll certainly talk about the impeccable quality of their work, taking credit for any victory with which they were even remotely associated. But the most important fact they'll impart is all the important people they've worked with before. The potential client is supposed to say, "Ooo, they worked for that presidential candidate and those senators and those governors—they must be really good." And in the end, what gets pollsters hired isn't merit, including whether they've screwed up in the past. It's who they know.

In other words, it's just like pretty much every other profession.

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