CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When it comes right down to it, running for elected office is a business decision.
It requires a huge investment of time and money, not to mention untold amounts of heartbreak and hurt feelings. Double that if it's a big race, or your opponent is particularly nasty.
Worse, all those investments could be worthless if 51 percent of people like the other candidate better than you. As in business, there are few guarantees in politics.
So politicians try to find advantages. They want to spot trends and predict what their "customers" want in order to get a leg up on the competition.
That's where the pollsters come in.
Forget about the horse race poll numbers you read about in election season, where a candidate might be ahead 10 points today and six points tomorrow. There's more to political polling than that.
Much of the information collected in polls is never released to the public. Instead, it is used to help candidates find more information about their constituents, determine what issues they care about and figure out what it would take to earn their votes.
And although reporters like to classify pollsters by party, Mark Mellman of the national polling firm The Mellman Group says there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to poll results.
"The difference between Democrat and Republican (pollsters) should not be in the science, but in the ways we use the information," Mellman, who typically works for Democrat candidates, said. "If everybody's doing things right, the numbers should be the same."
Mark Blankenship, who runs the Charleston-based Republican polling firm Mark Blankenship Enterprises, said he agrees.
"You don't get paid to be a Republican or a Democrat. You get paid to give good, reliable information," he said.
Preparing the poll
The accuracy of a poll is largely determined by its "sample," the people who are interviewed to collect information.
A poll's accuracy can be negatively affected if that sample contains too many people, or too few. Size has little to do with it. Even a poll that surveys 10,000 people could be incredibly inaccurate, if the wrong people are included.
For example: Blankenship said if you conducted a poll of all U.S. households, that study will run about 20 percent more in favor of Democrats.
But if you limit that sample to registered voters, Democrats' advantage drops by about 4 percent. If you include only likely voters, the Democrat advantage drops to 1 percent.
"At the end of the day, the sample group you have has to balance pretty closely to who you think are going to vote," said Republican political consultant Rob Cornelius.
Polled correctly, Blankenship said 600 responses should give an accurate representation of how the voting public feels.
In addition to surveying the correct people, it also is important to make sure your questions are asked correctly.
Polling firms work hard to come up with questions that don't subconsciously bias poll participants.
Mellman said pollsters typically avoid agree/disagree questions. That's because, for some reason, people are statistically more likely to choose "agree" than "disagree," no matter the topic.
It's also important to watch for words like "prohibit" and "allow."
Mellman said if pollsters asked voters whether Communists should be allowed to teach in public schools, most voters would probably say "no."
But many of those same people also would say "no" if pollsters asked whether Communists should be prohibited from teaching in public schools.
"The language creates a connotation," Mellman said.
Pollsters often include several questions covering the same topic but phrased in multiple ways, to try to escape wording biases.
"You try and hit it from a number of angles, knowing any one question can be a misleading indicator," Mellman said.
It's also important to ask questions in the correct order.
Pollsters always put "sample ballot" questions -- the ones that begin with "If the election were held tomorrow ..." -- before any message-testing questions, where you ask for participants' opinions of candidates and their campaign strategies.
That's because message testing sometimes includes negative statements about candidates or their opponents, and pollsters don't want that information to pollute voters' initial reactions.
Choosing the method
There are several ways to conduct a poll, but most polling firms prefer human operators to Internet and computer-automated polling.
Blankenship said people are generally more truthful when they're talking to another person. Robo-calls also cannot be certain whether they're talking to Mr. Smith or Mrs. Smith (or the family pet, if Fido happens to know how to use the phone).