Welcome to Louisiana Lefty, a podcast about politics and community in Louisiana where we make the case that the health of the state requires a strong progressive movement, fueled by the critical work of organizing on the ground. Our goal is to democratize information, demystify party politics, and empower you to join the mission because victory for Louisiana requires you.
On this week's episode, Pollster Jennifer Johnson and I discuss how to think about polls, how to use data to inform campaign work, and what the numbers can tell us about the possibilities for Louisiana progressives.
Jennifer Johnson! Thank you for joining me on Louisiana Lefty today.
So, Jennifer, you're a pollster, who I met at the Louisiana Democratic Party Women's Conference in Alexandria in 2015 when, of course, John Bel Edwards was running for governor. And you joined that conference via either Zoom or something very like Zoom. I remember it seeming very futuristic.
Yeah, no one had really done it at that time. We did like two tech rehearsals and all these funny things. And it's crazy to think now we just do that without blinking an eye.
So, one of the side effects of the pandemic is that we've missed the opportunity to meet for lunch and strategize every so often. So, I've really missed that. I just wanted to say that, but I want you to tell us a little bit more of your bio, a mini-bio, and specifically, I want to know what your political origin story is. What's your entry point into politics? And how did you get involved in polling?
Yeah, it's sort of a funny story. Politics always interested me even as a kid. I volunteered on campaigns in high school and worked on campaigns in the summers during college. The first kind of big campaign I worked on was Lynn Yeakel's US Senate race in 1992 in Pennsylvania. And I went back to school for senior year, was a political science major, and had to take a polling requirement class. And I remember sitting in the class, and I was sitting next to my housemate Hope. And I looked at her and said, "I really like this. I think I'd like to do this for a job." And she said to me, "Are you blanking crazy." Because she was not a fan of the class. And I just really liked it. You know, I've always loved math, and I've loved politics and government and political science. And it was a thing that tied those two things together. And so, I blindly applied for jobs at polling firms fresh out of school. This was 1993, so you went to the, you know, resource library that listed businesses, and you still had to get nice paper and print your resume and your letter on the nice paper. And I probably sent them to, you know, 20 to 30 Democratic polling firms in Washington D.C. And I was fortunate enough to, that August, get hired by one is an entry-level research assistant. And through various name changes, that is the place that I still work and now own. I had great mentors, former business owners, who really taught me the business from the ground up, and I've been here for 28 years. So, it's kind of an uncommon path. I don't know anybody else I graduated from college with who has had only one workplace. But I'm very fortunate and very lucky. And I really like what I do.
That's, particularly in politics, people are changing jobs all the time.
All the time.
Well, that's amazing. So I believe you've made this point, but you only work with Democrats, correct?
I do. I also do work for a lot of non-political entities, you know, healthcare, educational institutions, cultural institutions, nonprofits, businesses, but in the political space, I work for Democratic candidates and causes.
And what's the name of your company, again?
It's LJR Custom Strategies.
I want to frame this conversation with a couple of our mottos that I think are instructive. As a pollster, I've heard you often say that the data will set you free. And I take that very much to heart. As a campaigner, I follow the theorem that the only poll that matters is election day because every poll is simply a snapshot of a day, and a lot can happen over the course of a campaign. Yeah, so I contacted you shortly after election day of the last presidential election, and I actually asked you then to do this podcast because I wanted to get someone to speak to polls that knows more about them than I do. People had started to ask me after the election: why were the polls so wrong? And we've heard that in 2016 and 2020. What do you say to that?
Yeah, I think there are a few things going on. And this is something that other pollsters and I have talked about. There was an email going around among some five, six, seven of us shortly after election day. And that's some Republicans and some Democrats and folks that have partnered on different things over the years and that kind of thing. And I think, like so many things that have happened in the past four years, there was kind of an escalation in some minor issues in polling that became major issues in polling. And, you know, also, it's really important to remember that every poll has a margin of error. Every poll has a level of uncertainty. And that's easy to forget or not know if you're not in the industry, if that's not something that you do. So just as a baseline, I think that's an important fact that anybody who's looking at any poll should know. But then beyond that, there's really two factors of late that are challenges for pollsters and also challenges for people who listen to and look to polling results to inform them. And that's, you know, at the highest level ever, there was a significant group of people who did not feel comfortable sharing their voter preference for president. It was highly focused in the kind of white, upscale, suburban women cohort of voters. And they were going to vote for Donald Trump. And they were embarrassed to tell people be that an independent pollster, their friend in the grocery store, or anything in between. You and I have talked about this. And to me, if you have that sort of trepidation about sharing, that should kind of drive home that maybe you're not voting for the person that you should. But clearly, that was not the case. And so that certainly skewed results. The other thing is, there's this group, and I borrow this term from a prominent Republican pollster who shared it with me. He calls them poll deniers. And we've heard so many people say, you know, don't listen to the polls. The polls are a hoax. Fake news. That's fake polling. They use the polls to try to manipulate what you do. Which, I can't speak to others, but, that never crossed my mind. The data, as you said, will set you free. The data is the data. And sometimes it's good news for your client or candidate, and sometimes it's bad news. But the data is exactly data. But these folks who don't even participate, you know, won't even take the call, or if they take the call, they immediately hang up, that percentage has grown. You know, margin of error always accounted for some people just not being willing to talk to pollsters, but this distrust of institutions, this distrust of polling, this distrust of public polls and the media, which are very closely linked together, has had a further impact. I still think polls are extremely valuable. You know, the public polls, you have to look at through a certain lens. And then, I can talk more about this, but what I do is primarily internal polling for candidates. And that's not something that's shared with, you know, the news media or anyone else. I'm a strategist for them. And so, what I'm doing is a different kind of polling that's not just: "Who are you going to vote for? Thank you. Goodbye." That really helps people build their campaign out.
Right, so were the polls wrong or were people just looking at that data incorrectly?
I would say, some of both. You know, whenever you don't know what the electorate is going to look like, you can't guarantee that your poll is completely accurate. But I also think people need more education about the levels of uncertainty around polling, and that that would help them understand what they're really looking at, and that it is not, you know, to a 10th of a percent an accurate assessment of what the outcome will be.
And those poll deniers you were talking about. Do they tend to vote Republican?
So yes, I think recently poll deniers do tend to be Republican. I think that's kind of the brand that the president and his party have led, but long term and in the past, I'm sure we could find situations where that was the case among Democrats as well.
Okay. And it's probably more important to really look at for a presidential election, a state-by-state poll rather than the national polls.
Yeah, the national polls are sexy. You know, it's this head-to-head matchup that everybody can kind of understand. But as we all know, it's meaningless when it comes to who's actually going to be elected. And in some cases, you can win one and not the other. We've seen that obviously. So, I think people want this very easy to understand very quick snapshot to give them a sense of what's happening. And it would really be better if they took the time to look at more specific data. I understand that's not, you know, everyone's top priority, and they don't have time to do that, but if you really want a clear picture, you do need to take a little bit of a deeper dive into what's out there.
I've heard you say, national polling is just a fun fact.
Yeah. And it's interesting. And I check them out too when they first come out in the morning, or at the end of the day, or when there's a new one, or when you go to the place, and they amalgamate all of them and build out the charts. I find it really interesting and fascinating to track as well. But I just don't think it's a great predictor of election outcomes.
Very good. And what do you think besides these poll deniers, what has undermined the public's faith in polls?
I think the same thing that's undermined the public's faith in so many institutions and facts. And, you know, I hold Donald Trump very accountable for a lot of the distrust that's out there. And I think I'm the type of person who, because I like data so well, has always had sort of a, I would say, healthy distrust or healthy questioning attitude of when people just say something. You know, show me where that came from, show me the data, show me the background, show me the resources that you used to get there. But the shift that has occurred in the last, I'd say, four to five years now of just overall distrust in things that I can certainly say never crossed my mind to question before. That sort of attitude is beyond the healthy distrust, I think, that would be a good place for the country to be. And I think pollsters are an easy target. And people like to say, well, the polls were wrong. And that's sort of the excuse for things, but there's a lot of ways that information can be manipulated and shared beyond the polling that really can skew everything.
And people expect more from polling than it can really--
Well, yes, people certainly expect it to be able to show you more and to be exactly right. And, you know, it's just, for all the reasons that we've talked about: margin of error, people not participating, people not telling you honestly what's happening. You account for all that, and you really think about it, but at the same time, it again has its limitations. And honestly, that's why I don't really choose to do a lot of public polling. I think those who do understand those limitations. Could they be communicated a little better to help people understand? I think yes. I think that's something that our industry should and could do. But it's really why I focus on the internal work because I like the strategy piece. I like the figuring out the path to victory piece more than being a, you know, prognosticator or a future predictor.
Okay, so that's, I guess, what we'll get into then. Your focus is more on local races and down-ballot races at least, right?
Yeah, I've done some US Senate work. I've done a lot of congressional work, but of late, I've done mostly statewide, state senate, state house, and then local, so city council, county executive, those kinds of races.
And so, should those candidates think about fundraising for polls or include that in their budgets when they're planning their campaign strategies?
I mean, if they can afford it, and they have the budget, absolutely. You know, polling typically I say should be about 10% of your budget. And even a very simple, you know, straightforward kind of quick poll with live callers, which is what I do, we don't do the push button polls, is going to cost $5,000. So if you're looking at a campaign with a budget of under $50,000, no. You probably should not do a poll. It would be great if you could. I wish it were cheaper, and we could give those services to everybody, but that's kind of the threshold to me to consider a poll. But I do think, you know, if you ask any state legislative, city council, school board candidate who's able to do one if they get the bang for their buck from it. If it's done by a good pollster, I think they're going to absolutely say yes. Because it just tells them so much about the full composition of the district in which they are running instead of just the folks they hear from who love them or who have a bone to pick with them and not really hearing from the folks kind of in the middle.
So from your perspective, the work you do is less about fortune telling about an election and more about strategy. So, what are the things you can strategize from a poll?
Sure. So, you're absolutely right. In a lot of these races that I've just been talking about, the winner on the head-to-head is often undecided. The biggest percentage of voters don't know. It's quite likely you might have 35% for one candidate, 20% for another candidate, and 45% undecided. So, how would you predict that? You can't. So, what we do is really look at those undecided voters, test messages, platforms, ideas, themes that our candidate wants to share and work on in the legislature or whatever office they're seeking and then see what moves those undecideds. So, at the beginning of the poll, they don't know who they're going to vote for, and at the end of the poll, they're going to vote for Lynda Woolard. So then we go and look at who are those people who moved. And you know, was it because of what she said about education? Is it because of what she said about creating jobs? Is it because of what she said about her healthcare stance? And then we can really help that candidate focus on talking about the right things and also to the right people. So, is it half of the district that has known you as a person in elected office on town council, you're gonna win there. You don't have to worry about them. You need to go to the rest of the county. Or is it older voters who don't know you? And you need to target them and go to the senior centers and talk about the issues that matter to them. So, it's really about messaging and targeting and figuring out how to move voters so that you can build that 50% plus one coalition.
And then what about focus groups. We hear about them a lot. And so, is that something candidates should concern themselves with?
I mean, focus groups are wonderful, but for the types of races that I do, they tend to be a luxury item. They're more expensive. Just one focus group is often more expensive than a poll. And it doesn't give you that statistically reliable read of the whole district that you're looking to represent. You know, there's no way with just one focus group with eight to ten people you can get to that level of extrapolation, let's say. Now, for a large-scale campaign, for US Senate, for congress where it is extra valuable to be able to hear your voters speak in their own words before you start communicating with them. Absolutely. Focus groups are a very valuable tool. But they're, I would say, a pricey tool and certainly, for a campaign that's having to decide between doing a poll or focus group, I would always recommend a poll.
What makes a focus group so expensive?
You have to pay the people to come. They tend to only feel comfortable coming if it's in a traditional focus group facility, which costs quite a bit to rent for the evening. And that would be, you know, a boardroom with a two-way mirror where the clients can sit behind the mirror and observe the proceedings. You need to record it so that you can go back and listen and make sure you know that you captured everything accurately. And just all of those encumbrances of that. And often there's travel costs involved to bring the moderator, which, in my case, would be me. Other consultants, you know, other people working on the campaign. So, it adds up really quickly if you're doing a traditional focus group. We've tried to do them in more informal settings, you know, in a room at the library or different things, and it's honestly hard to get people to come to those. They tend to be a little skeptical about the whole process. And I understand that. And then if that doesn't work, there's lost time, there's lost money, there's lost effort. So, they are a bit of a challenge. And of course, then you overlay COVID with all of this, and, you know, I have not done focus groups in person since a few weeks before the pandemic hit. One way we replaced them is with what we call in-depth interviews, where we just speak one-on-one with folks for, you know, usually 20 to 30 minutes and have a series of questions that we ask them. And that gives us that same qualitative data still getting to hear people react to things and share things in their own words. Obviously, it's a little different because you don't get that group dynamic, which can be really special in a focus group and really help lead the conversation. But it's still valuable. And those are cheaper because it's just two people talking on the phone.
Well, and I guess you really couldn't do focus groups in a rural area because you're not going to have the kind of facility you would need to do a focus group. So, you're really kind of having to either get people to travel to where you're hosting the event, or you're only using people within the area where you can find that kind of facility.
Yeah, they can be done. And you know, I don't know this, but I would certainly think that the presidential campaigns are doing that kind of thing. A lot of the states that are more rural, some of the suburban and urban focus group facilities have an arrangement with a town bank or community center or somewhere where they do remote focus groups. They'll send out their folks. They don't necessarily have the room with the mirror, but they'll set up a closed-circuit cameras situation. And so, it can be done. And of course, if you offer people enough money, they will travel quite far to participate. But I mean, you can get up to where a single focus group costs $15,000, $18,000. And if you need to do that, it could be money very well spent, but sometimes that's a heck of a poll for that kind of money.
Okay, okay. So who uses focus groups the most? What are they most effective for?
Yeah, really, a congressional race, I think, or higher up the ballot. And I would say also, maybe a mayor or something of that nature. But for the most part, if you're in a small enough district, and you're going door to door, you're attending events, and people are coming up and talking to you, that's a lot like a focus group. You know, people always say, "Oh, I don't need to poll. I go door to door every day and, you know, hear from candidates, and that's a poll." And I always come back and say, "No, that's a focus group." Because really it's that interaction. It's hearing from people in their own words. And if we can get the candidates to pay attention enough and think about what are you hearing again and again? How are people framing stuff? If it's the same all the time, that's how you need to talk about it too because that's how people are thinking about it, and they'll relate to you better. And so all that collecting things from conversations is extremely valuable. But it's different from polling. And so, then that poll gives you again the opinions of the people who can't answer their door or don't answer their door or work three jobs and can't do that. And it just gives you a much better chance of reaching a whole lot of people you're not going to get to talk to at community events or walking through the neighborhood.
So, how does misinformation and disinformation affect your work? I'm thinking specifically about how Fox News impacts the way people think or about how Facebook is a big spreader of misinformation, and actually, you know, Facebook gets better engagement from false information. That's more lucrative to them. So, I'm just wondering how that comes back in polling or your conversations with people?
Yeah. So, misinformation and disinformation is interesting because my job is to gauge what people think and know or think they know. And it's as valuable to know that they believe a piece of disinformation is true as it is to gauge their true and accurate opinion on all of the work. So, our job is to really get into voters' minds and help the candidate understand what voters are thinking and what they believe. Sometimes that means you discover that a lie that was told about you has stuck and that people really believe that and that your job as a campaign is to clear the record and set the record straight. You know, other times it might be that you share something about yourself that was true, and people don't believe it. And we have to figure out another way to get that information out that is credible. You know, again, all these different voices and social media and the strongly partisan and ideological channels really have an impact. And to have done this for 28 years and see the evolution of people having less access to information and how it was kind of easier to poll in some circumstances and harder and in the others. And now they've just got so much information that it's really important that we carefully assess and watch and read and look at the full communication around the campaign so that we're asking detailed and exact and correct questions to see what voters have internalized and what they haven't.
We've talked in the past about a lot of this disinformation starting around the time of the Obama campaign and those whispers that Obama's a Muslim or even the birth certificate issue, you know, the birther stuff. That really has taken hold. And some of those people will never be moved from that. Is it just a matter of polling and finding what percent are never going to be moved from those rigid ideas? Or how do you handle it?
Yeah, I think that's valuable information, right? Like, I kind of go back to when we were talking about how people are so embarrassed about who they're going to vote for that they won't tell you. I struggle with the fact that you could do a poll and have 10% of people say that Obama is a Muslim because he isn't, but it's important to know that. If you are the person that that misinformation is believed about, you write off that 10%. And as angry as it makes you and as disillusioned as it makes you feel because it's completely untrue, you know, is there a path to victory that just ignores those people and lets them be over there and feel that way? Yes. A kind of more mainline example that I can share is I do a lot of polling in Ohio around tax issues. So, you know, levies, renewals, usually for things like school constructions, school operations, the county park system, the county library, and every time we poll, there is a 20% to 30% group of people who would not vote for our tax if it were a tax to build them a brand new house and nothing else. I mean, they hear the word tax, and they say no. And it does not matter if it is for the greatest, best thing that will help everybody around. They say no. And I always have clients who say, "But what can we do? How can we convince them? How do we show them?" And you're never going to. And so, part of my work and part of what I am able to do to help them is say, "We have to look at this other bucket, this 70% that's left. You only need 50% plus one. So, how are we going to carve out a coalition among these folks who are left to get you a victory?" And that's hard for people to at first think about? I mean, imagine if it's about a lie about you that people believe. It's even harder. But that's part of my job. Find out who thinks this. Forget about them. We can say, you know, whatever we want to about them that makes us feel better. And then we can focus on the group that's left, and how do we win? And, you know, because it's different than people like misunderstanding your vote on an education bill, that's where you can go out and explain how no, no. That was one little piece of the bill that funded this thing you didn't like, but this great thing got millions and millions of dollars or what have you. Those are things we find out too, but that's different. If they just straight-up believe something that's not true, you can't change it.
Okay, so when you spoke at the women's conference, you gave a data point that has stuck with me ever since that only 17% of registered Democrats statewide identify as liberal. And that's a remarkable thing to note in Louisiana because it really underscores the difficulty with the electability of a full-out progressive candidate for a statewide office, right? Can you tell us some of the other top-line data points that would be of interest or useful to folks like myself who are recruiting candidates or working for candidates or just an activist or an organizer in the state, anything else that sticks out to you?
Sure. So that, as you said, when we started was in 2015, which is a while ago, and so I haven't done a statewide poll Louisiana super recently. But I have one that was done in 2019. And I was going to share some of the similar data because I think that might be of interest to the folks who are listening. So, this is when we look, and in Louisiana, I think we all know party ID, where I tell you what party I identify with, and party registration can be strikingly different. There's a lot of folks who are still registered as a Democrat on the state voter file who don't think of themselves as a Democrat. But I also think, as you said, when we think about ideology, which we classify as choices of very liberal, somewhat liberal, moderate, somewhat conservative, and very conservative. So, I looked at registered Democrats in this 2019 poll, and among them, 26% say they are very or somewhat conservative. 39% say they're moderate. And 27% say they are very or somewhat liberal. So among registered Democrats, the very conservative somewhat conservative, and very liberal somewhat liberal groups are the same size. Among Republicans, 62% say they're very or somewhat conservative. 28% say moderate. And 5% say liberal, somewhat or very. So they are much more ideologically and party in sync. And then independents, and I think this is in some ways the most interesting, are 44% conservative, 35% moderate, and 11% liberal. So obviously, what you just said is strikingly true. There has been a little bit of improvement, at least in this poll versus the 2015 poll that I shared, but still, about a quarter of registered Democrats say that they are liberal. Here's what's even more interesting. When we asked by party ID, you would think, okay, so these are the people now who say they're a Democrat. Surely, they're much more liberal. They are more liberal ever so slightly. Among them, 31% say they are very or somewhat liberal. 47% say they are moderate. And 17% say they are very or somewhat conservative. So even in our people who say, "I'm a Democrat." Do the Democratic thing. Only three and ten identify as liberal in this state. That's striking. And I think it does speak to some of the challenges that progressive candidates and progressive causes face. And let me just share one other thing that I think helps underscore that. I also wanted to look at ideology by the race of voters. And when we look at white voters, 49% say they're conservative, 33% say moderate, and 11% say liberal. When we look at black voters, 23% say conservative 39% say moderate, and 29% say liberal. So, it's pretty balanced there when we look at black voters. And unfortunately, in this poll, we didn't have enough other voters of color other than black to look at them as a reliable group. But what that tells us is overall this state, 17% of people say they're liberal, 41% say they're conservative, and 35% say they're moderate. Are there are pockets where things are somewhat different. Of course. But certainly for a statewide candidate but even for a regional candidate, these are very interesting and, I think, very telling numbers about the ideology of voters in Louisiana.
It's really good data. And I think it's really important as we do our organizing work to think about those numbers. I find it so interesting. Not that I didn't already know this, but I still find it interesting that there are conservative Democrats. I think it's important to remember that.
I would not have guessed there were liberal Republicans.
Yeah, 5%. So, you know.
Small number, but that's fascinating. And then I know that when I've registered voters, there have been more voters registering to no party, at least in my anecdotal experience. And then I just want to point out to folks who are listening that the downside of registering to no party is that you cannot vote in the presidential preference primaries in Louisiana, even though we have jungle primaries for everything else, you just don't get a say in the presidential primaries. And I think that's a big deal for me, so I would hope people would bear that in mind. What role does religion play in the state demographics? And I guess a sister question to that would be abortion. Does that impact help people self-identify politically here?
Yeah, I think it ties into the data that we were just talking about in part. I think whether it's correct or not, some of those conservative Democrats are saying that because they are pro-life. I think if you wanted in my opinion on who those 5% of liberal Republicans are, I would think they are upscale, white, suburban women who are pro-choice but vote Republican. So, I think it's all tied together very closely. Before I moved here and started doing a lot of polling here, I had never polled any state that was so heavily Catholic. And I think it really has a very significant impact on choice and therefore on party identification and therefore on how folks vote and how that all ties together. You know, the only statewide elected Democrat here is a pro-life official. And he, in a lot of ways, if you go through this statewide poll from 2019 and look at the group that wins on a lot of things, it is pro-life. It is moderate. It's white. And so, it starts to show you how someone like that can be elected in the deep south. But it does certainly show that there is work to do for progressive candidates and people who are looking to organize progressives because that Catholic pro-life ergo conservative history permeates so much of what's happening here culturally and electorally. And it's inescapable and certainly makes work for candidates who don't fit that profile I just outlined all the harder.
So, a lot has been made about Democratic registration numbers going down. What do you think is going on there, in your opinion? Do you think that's just people's ideology catching up to their registration?
I think that's part of it. I think there is frustration with partisanship. I think there is especially frustration with partisanship of younger voters who, at least in part, tend to make up a larger segment of new registrants because they come of age, and they're allowed to vote and able to vote. I'm curious to see as more young folks register, and, you know, there's more trends of progressive candidates at the federal level, do those independents that we talked about, who are still pretty conservative right now in Louisiana, does that start to level out? Are the independents becoming more balanced between liberal and moderate and conservative? I would think that that's a possibility. But it remains to be seen.
Okay. And I imagine jungle primaries are rough on pollsters. How difficult is pulling in a race with a lot of candidates or just in general jungle primaries? How tough is that?
It's really hard because what we need to do is take a snapshot of what election day is going to look like. And as I said, often, it's undecided who wins. But sometimes people say, "Well, why do you have to include all the candidates?" And you have to include all the candidates because that's what's on the ballot. And two or three candidates getting 2% or 3% of the vote can have a significant impact on who gets in a runoff. I think back to some state legislative races we worked on a couple years ago where the top three candidates were all 200 to 300 votes apart. And there were six or seven other candidates on the ballot. If you don't think those people had an impact, you're not paying attention because they had a tremendous impact and determine who made that runoff. So, it's hard. Certainly, when you start thinking about margin of error and all those kinds of things, and people getting 1%, 2%, and 3%, it gets pretty complicated pretty quickly. But you know, that's my job. And that's what I have to figure out. But I believe you always have to include all the candidates who are on the ballot on the poll.
And that can make for a pretty long poll?
Yeah, I mean, it's funny because that $5,000 poll that I mentioned for a candidate kind of as a threshold, if you have to spend three minutes of it just reading the names of the candidates running for office, it's going to take away from our ability to test messages and ask demographic questions to determine targets and those kinds of things. So, we try to be pretty flexible and help our folks out when something like that arises. But more likely it's often like four candidates or five candidates, and that's manageable. When you get into these ones that happen to have 12 or 15, it's a lot
You get your data through phone banking, correct?
Yes. All of our political polling is done by telephone. Some of our other work is done online, but that's just not reliable for political polling right now.
And these are paid phone bankers, right?
Yeah. These are professional, live callers who have been conducting telephone interviews for years.
And what are some of the skill sets that you look for when you're hiring a phone banker?
Yeah, so we actually have a phone bank that we use, so I don't hire the actual individual callers. I trust the women that run that firm, but they are my secret weapon. I will tell you. I am fortunate to have them, and they are just wonderful. And really, they have this group of people, it's primarily women but not exclusively, who have this skill set, which they've built over the years just like we all do at any career, of just instant camaraderie with the person on the phone. They're approachable, they're kind, they're respectful, they're appreciative because we're calling into somebody's life and asking them to stop what they're doing and take typically 10 to 15 minutes of their time to tell us what they think about something. Now, people do like to tell you what they think, so we have that on our side, but nonetheless, we're relying on cooperation from folks to be able to do our work. And having a phone bank that is so respectful and so good at what they do is invaluable to me. They can collect 400 to 500 interviews of data in three to four days. And to know that they are representing me well and the candidate for whom we're calling well gives me peace of mind that is just--I'm tremendously fortunate to have them.
Typically, how many times would they have to call a voter back to actually get them on the phone?
Yeah, so that's another thing that they're extremely talented at. You could probably complete 400 interviews in one to two nights if you just talk to all the people who answer right away. But they don't do that because that's not going to give you a good, reliable sample. That's going to skew the data toward people who are of a certain age. Maybe they're not working. That kind of thing. So, they do callbacks all the time where if they try a number, and it's a live number, they'll just put it to the side, and then it'll come back up, and they'll try it again. They leave messages so that people know, if they call back, what it's about so that they might be more inclined to answer. They have people call them back to complete polls.
I have asked other pollsters if their phone banks had this happen. And they look at me like I'm crazy. But you know, we're not giving people any incentive. There's no financial incentive like a focus group or anything, but people call them back. It just blows my mind. But it's great. They have people who will schedule the time with them. They'll say, "I can't talk now, but if you call me tomorrow at two, I can do it then." And I'm like, really? And they say like 95% of them are available when they said to callback. So they're just my secret sauce for sure. And I am very, very lucky.
So some things that campaigns talk about with polls. One of the things they talk about, the difficulty of using only landlines now that everyone has cell phones, but that's a bit of a misnomer, right.
Yeah. I can only speak for what I do, which is call a whole ton of cell phones. You know, it costs more to call a cell phone because you're required to hand dial those numbers versus landlines, which can be auto-dialed. That's antiquated at this point, but it still exists. And I know a lot of firms charge different prices to do cell phone versus landline polls. I do not. I think that's the cost of doing business. But I would say on average, the smallest percentage of cell phones in a poll I've done recently is like 68%.
Wow. And just to clarify, you say auto-dial, but it's still a live person.
It's still a human. Yeah, it's just that for landlines, you can have the computer make the call, and then the audio comes through the computer, and you just speak that way. Versus for cell phones, you actually have to punch in the numbers still.
Well, look, for those of us who phonebank for campaigns, we do know the difference. There's a predictive dialer that will dial numbers for us, and then there's the open virtual phone bank where you call the numbers yourself. So, people can understand that, I think. Often campaigns worry that young voters will be under-sampled because they won't pick up a phone call. What's your experience there?
We don't really have a major issue with that. We do track the age of our samples to make sure that the folks that we end up talking to match up age, gender, race wise with the expected voting universe. Every now and then, we have to weight something to make sure that the age aligns. But I would say, that's like one out of every 20 polls. And that's because, again, my phone bank isn't just calling the low-hanging fruit, talking to them, and sending me data. I do know a lot of other pollsters weight things a lot more. I can't speak to the specifics of that since that's their work. But we rarely weight our samples. They come back and look like they should
Do you try because you assume or data predicts that more older voters will vote in an election, so do you try to call more older voters? Or how do you handle that?
Yeah, let me back up a step because I think that'll help answer this question and just give people a little more insight in general. So, when we get a sample, and that's the list of names and phone numbers of people that we're going to call, we select that using vote history that matches up with the election that we're talking about. So, for a presidential race, pretty much if you voted sometime in the last few years, you're probably going to vote in that presidential race, and you're going to be in our sample. If we're talking about a special election for US Congress, then you're going to look at a totally different subset of the electorate, and you're going to go back and look at people who voted in other special elections. So, you pull that group of people, and it tends just to be a lot smaller than the full registered voter list. Then you look at the demographic characteristics of that group. So, for a special election, we know that the voters are going to be older because they tend to be more consistent, more regular voters. Obviously, we wouldn't expect the same age distribution as we look at a poll for a special election that we would as we look at a poll for president. And because of that, we know what to expect. We know what that electorate is going to look like. And that's what we compare the ending interviews to make sure it's right. It's not just like US Census data, and there's 25% 18 to 34-year-olds in Louisiana, so every poll we do in Louisiana should have 25% 18 to 34-year-olds. It's much more nuanced based on the election and who's likely to turn out.
Okay. And you mentioned weighting polls, and I've certainly heard campaigns talk a lot about that, where they're, oh, well, that poll is not weighted. They didn't weight that. What does that mean?
Thinking back to what I was just talking about, we have a sense of what we expect the age, and race, and gender distribution to be? Let's just make a real simple one. So, you know, women tend to vote more than men. And older women tend to vote the most especially in something that's not a high turnout election. So, let's say we were polling in a special election, and we expected to get 50% or 60% women and 40% men. And when the poll came back, we only ended up with 57% women and 43% men. What we would do then is apply some weights, just using some statistical logic, to adjust the data so that it gets to where we have 60% women and 40% men. And that is a better look at what that electorate is going to look like. Now, our phone bank really, again, does such a good job that, because they call through and talk to everybody and don't focus on talking to the easy to reach people, we almost always get exactly spot on what we expected. And very rarely do we have to do that statistical adjustment to realign the data. But every now and then, you do. And it's important to do that because you don't want to not give people something that's reflective of the expected electorate.
There's a big debate on whether Democrats should focus on voter registration and turning out low propensity voters or should spend time trying to persuade rural white voters, who used to be solid Democrats but now vote Republican, to come back to the party. Do you have any data on that?
I would say that it will be very challenging in the short term to bring rural white Democrats back to the party. But that's not to say that there aren't candidates that can be recruited by the Democratic party that those folks will vote for. I think it's more about that than worrying about how they describe themselves and that there are tremendous engagement opportunities. But looking at those numbers that we talked about a little bit ago, where we looked at party registration and party ID and ideology, my answer to that either-or question is both and yes. I think that both of those efforts are critically important. I think more people have come out of the woodwork and started to engage in politics than in a long time, some of that due to not great things happening. But it's an opportunity and certainly to message Democratic Party messages and Democratic candidate messages in a way that speaks to that group is really important.
So for local candidates, the answer is it matters where you are. It goes back to studying the data to know how many votes you can handily get as a Democrat in your district, right? So, Louisiana Lefty, we'll get into win numbers in a later podcast, for those who don't know about it, but many of our campaigners in the state already know what a win number is and the importance of identifying it. And then you can ascertain, once you have a win number, how to use the limited resources you have, which are always three things: people, money, and time. And that's some of what your polling can help people figure out: where they want to invest, where they want to put money towards people and money. And you know what the time is. The time ends on election day. So, you count backwards from there. So, if you don't have enough Democratic votes in your district to be able to win as a Democrat, you've got to go looking for where are you going to make up that deficit. And that's part of what a good polling consultant can help with. And if you can afford it, but a lot of that data can also be found in the voter file, which for Democrats, we call VoteBuilder. So can you talk about some of that data that people could pull from VoteBuilder or the voter file that would be helpful in identifying where their voters might be found?
Yeah, absolutely. You know, just as I use that vote history information to figure out the sample for a poll, a campaign should do the same thing. So, you want to make sure you're looking at people who are likely to vote in whatever election your candidate is running in. But then there's a wealth of other information on there. I mean, there's party registration, there's age, there's a racial code that's not pure and perfect, but it's helpful, and other things. You can see the household and how many people are in the household? And are they all the same party, or are they a split party household? And you can really get a treasure trove of information that can help you figure out what it looks like to get to that win number, to get to that 50% plus one. And also a thing that you mentioned, you said, "Time ends on election day." But time also kind of ends when early voting starts. There's that extra factor here. You can see who votes early, and you can go to them first or make sure you know that their mailers, you get some mailers out and then you drop them and then you save money. And you can send other things or do other things with that money. So, there is so much information, and we talk about the data will set you free. It's not just polling data. It's that robust set of data on the voter file that is also very, very helpful. And if you can find somebody to help your campaign who can really spend some time and get their head around the voter file, that gives you a huge advantage.
And those of us who know how well field works, the direct voter contact through door knocks, phone calls, texts, etc., we are known to say, "Yard signs don't vote. Go knock doors." And people can get a little bit huffy with us about that. But the point isn't to have zero yard signs. The point is to budget appropriately, so yard signs shouldn't be the, yard signs shouldn't take up your full budget, in other words. That shouldn't be the majority of the things that you spend money on.
Not even, shouldn't even take up your polling budget, which would be 10% of your full budget. Of course, they're a fact of campaigns and understood. But absolutely, you want to diversify and make sure you have lots of ways of communicating. And as we talked about, it's about messaging, and targeting, and talking to the right people about the right thing. And the yard signs don't do any of that. And if you want your face on a yard sign, you don't have to run for office, you could just make the yard sign.
Which would be a lot cheaper than--
A lot cheaper, a lot less stressful on you and your family and your friends. And you probably wouldn't have to ask all of them for money. And if you did, it would be a very small amount.
And Jennifer, are there a lot of women in your field?
There are not a whole lot. I mean, there are some women who've been doing this for far longer than me, who are some of the most established, well-known pollsters around. So, it's funny that people still consider women in polling a novelty, but they do. And they're actually, just in consulting in general, there are still many, many meetings and Zooms that I'm on where I'm the only woman at the table.
What, what does it take to get more women in these spots?
I wish I knew. I've certainly had the opportunity to mentor some folks over the years. Most of them have taken a path where they've gone into the more survey research less political side of things. So, I'm still extremely proud of teaching them good methods and all of those things. But as we said at the very beginning when I mentioned I've been doing this for 28 years that a lot of people don't last in politics that long. And I think that's a piece of it. And polling is kind of that tricky space where you do need to have sort of the left brain right brain: art meets science, you know, math meets social science interest. And there's just, there's not that many people interested in going into it of either gender to be fair. So, this is years ago now although I don't imagine it's changed a whole lot, but I was doing caucus work in the state of North Carolina, and we had very large consultant groups, you know, two pollsters, two mail consultants, two media consultants, and there were probably, I don't know, 20 people or so total, and I was the only woman at that point. And I'll never forget coming in to meet with the candidates, you know, how you meet with the candidates to have background conversations. And the first one that I went in and that said to me, "I can't believe it. I have a lady pollster."
I love that story. I have three questions that I asked at the end of the podcast. Now, what do you see as the biggest obstacle for Louisiana progressives in politics?
I think it goes back to that ideology data that we talked about and helping people understand that what they really believe is probably more progressive than they realize and that if you care about people, and if you care about helping people other than yourself, and if you care about improving your community, that's progressive. And that's who we are. And I think if a whole lot of folks in that bucket that considers themselves moderate really understood that, they would shift to the progressive label. And I don't mean that like, we just want them to call themselves that but in a way that they would actually act on these things.
What do you think is the biggest opportunity for Louisiana progressives?
Well, certainly none of us are in any way happy with what has happened in the world and the challenges that people have faced. I think the sense of community as we start to come back from this pandemic is going to be stronger than ever. People miss each other. They miss things that we never knew might even go away for a minute. I do feel like the climate is changing, and there's an opportunity there to connect people, and those connections really, to me, focus much more on the progressive side of things than the other side of things. And when it comes to organizing, when it comes to talking to folks, you know, nobody's had interaction in a while, and I think people are going to be eager to hear about new ideas and eager to open their ears more than they've been in the past. I mean, a funny thing for us is obviously, calling people to poll is hard. When we first started calling, which we took a little break for COVID because everybody was so freaked out at first, but our interviewers couldn't get people off the phone like they wanted to just chat. And we realized it was because they hadn't spoken to anybody who wasn't in their household in like six, eight weeks. And that's sort of a silly side effect, but I do think there's just this renewed sense of wanting to come together and do things. And I think it could be an opportunity that we would never have wished for or asked for, but we should really pay attention and see if there's things that can be done as a result of it.
People may actually be excited to get canvassers knocking on their doors.
Yeah or just go to a community meeting and hear about what this local, you know, their local Democrats are doing or their local environmental group is doing or what have you. And I think we're all just sort of burned out on everything. And we've had a chance to kind of shake the Etch-A-Sketch a little bit. And it'll be very interesting to see who can capitalize on that and do good things for the world.
Very good. Well, and I'm sure you've seen the iconography of Louisiana Lefty has sort of got the superhero theme running thew it because we believe that those folks who do the door knocks and the phone calls and all of that are superheroes. Do you have a favorite superhero?
I mean, I was a huge Wonder Woman fan as a child. Wore a very sad version of a Wonder Woman costume one Halloween. I'll stick with her. You know, as a woman in a field that doesn't have a lot of them, I'll go with Wonder Woman.
Well, I love that. She's strong. I love that. That's a strong answer. That's a strong answer. How would people connect to you if they wanted to connect to your work?
Website is probably the best. We've got all of our contact information, samples of our work, lists of clients, and things there. We do have a firm Facebook page. Don't post a lot, but messenger there would also work well. Those are the two best ways to reach us. And we are super responsive, so if you send a message, you're going to get one back.
So, I'll post it in the podcast notes, but what's the website?
Very good. Jennifer, thank you so much for spending time with me today and talking about your craft. It's something that, I think, a lot of people don't really get to hear about or even maybe think about so much when they're organizing or working on campaigns. But it is a critical part of what we do and how we win. So, thank you so much for your time.
Thank you for asking me. It's been my pleasure.
Thank you for listening to Louisiana Lefty. Please subscribe to our podcast and then follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can connect with Jennifer Johnson's work by visiting ljrcustomstrategies.com. Thanks to Ben Collinsworth for producing Louisiana Lefty, Jennifer Pack of Black Cat studios for our Super Lefty artwork, and Thousand $ Car for allowing us to use their Swamp Pop classic "Security Guard" as our Louisiana Lefty theme song.