If you're tired of all those candidate polls after the long election season, you aren't alone. So are the pollsters.
As a result, firms that conduct public opinion surveys for politicians are increasingly trying their hand at something else: lobbying.
Not traditional lobbying. They don't run to Capitol Hill to twist arms. But they do accept private-sector clients -- corporations and interest groups -- who pay them to take the public's temperature on issues that they want Congress to pass. In turn, these clients use the results to support their case.
This kind of information is central to what lobbying is really about these days: persuading legislators that voters really care. Years ago, laws were written by a handful of powerful people who didn't worry much what citizens thought. Nowadays, power is much more diffuse and politicians listen attentively to what their constituents say for fear of losing their seats.
So lobbying campaigns usually include at least one poll that purports to show that voters agree entirely with whatever the interest group is pushing.
If this sounds like a racket, it is. Polls can come to practically any conclusion depending on how the questions are asked. But that hasn't slowed the practice. In fact, it's growing rapidly enough to keep polling companies in clover.
Take Ayres, McHenry & Associates Inc. As soon as voters were finished casting their ballots in the presidential race, the Alexandriaconsulting firm was busy conducting a poll, not for a candidate, but for America's Health Insurance Plans, a health-insurance trade association. The survey, released soon after Election Day, showed (surprise! surprise!) that 83 percent of Americans were "satisfied with their current private-sector health insurance coverage."
Pollsters defend their work. Then again, interest groups never release studies that run counter to their point-of-view. From the public's perspective, said Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess, "I don't think they're worth a damn. We don't accept a poll just because it has the name of a reputable pollster on it."
Nonetheless, Ayres, McHenry was thrilled to have the business. Whit Ayres, the company's president, has polled for such well-known politicians as Sens. Bill Frist and Lamar Alexander, both Republicans from Tennessee. And when he established his company in 1991, about 80 percent of his polling was done for office-seekers. But over the years that's changed gradually so that 80 percent of his revenue now comes from non-candidate work.
"My family has a curious desire to eat in odd-numbered years," Ayres explained. "That creates a motivation to do something other than political races, which tend to be concentrated in even-numbered years."
Other pollsters make the same point: Survey firms can't live by elections alone. Without non-candidate clients they would have to all-but shut down in non-election years. Even during the election season, candidates are notoriously slow payers (when they pay at all). Politicians also tend to demand attention at odd hours. The chaos of campaigns knows no bounds.
Pollsters who want a steady income and a full night's sleep have turned more and more to the corporate world, including lobbying. Luckily for them, Washington's persuasion industry has cooperated by booming in the last decade or so, supplying a nonstop stream of work.
Public Opinion Strategies' foray into non-candidate polling began with the landmark lobbying effort nicknamed "Harry and Louise." Back in 1993, the polling firm's Bill McInturff was asked by a health insurance trade group to test the setting that voters would find most compelling for a couple discussing the dangers of President Bill Clinton's new health-care proposal. McInturff's conclusion: a kitchen table. The rest is history.
The television commercial that the health insurers produced, which featured the fictitious Harry and Louise sitting at a kitchen table, was instrumental in defeating the Clinton initiative. It also launched an important new business for McInturff and his partners. In 1996, almost all of the company's $6 million in revenue came from candidate polling, McInturff said. Today its $21 million in revenue is split 50-50 between political candidates and lobbying-related advocacy.
McInturff asserts that the polling he does for lobbying clients such as drug companies, airlines and gambling interests actually benefits the candidates his company serves. They knew earlier than other pollsters' clients, for instance, that the rising cost of drugs was a significant worry for seniors during the election of 2000. Public Opinion Strategies was also able to provide its candidates with poll-tested responses in case they were confronted on the issue.
A few polling firms see non-candidate polling as an extension of their electoral consulting. Lake, Snell, Perry & Associates Inc.'s main business is helping to elect Democrats. But it also works for environmental groups, which are the party's natural allies. So when it conducted a survey that showed broad public opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it was merely "applying the same pressure in a different way," says Alan C. Wolf, the firm's chief operating officer. "Most of our work is designed to advance the progressive or Democratic agenda."
But for most public opinion survey companies, dollars and cents, not ideology, provide the prime incentive. Tony Fabrizio said that for sound financial reasons Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates Inc. gets 90 percent of its revenue from private-sector clients, up from 15 percent eight years ago. "When you develop a base of corporate clients and trade association clients," he said, "you tend to work every year, throughout the year."
Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc. has sliced itself into five divisions, only one of which does political polling. The others focus on corporations, nonprofit organizations, unions and news outlets. A lot of the non-political polling has nothing to do with lobbying. Hart Research has also advised companies how to improve their reputations in the marketplace -- a function that's a lot like telling candidates how to win more votes. It once did a poll for American Airlines that demonstrated that the public didn't want a third airport in the Chicago area -- just as the airline had hoped.
The advice game to companies has gotten so lucrative that some pretty famous pollsters, renowned for their political analysis, don't work much for candidates anymore. Mark Penn polled for Clinton and did surveys this year for presidential hopeful Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). But Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates Inc. gets most of its revenue from corporations, which it counsels about what policy positions to take and how to improve their brands.
Penn, Schoen was bought in 2001 by WPP Group PLC, an international advertising conglomerate, but clearly not for its electoral polling. The news release announcing the transaction proclaimed that "the vast majority" of Penn, Schoen's business came from applying its political know-how to "corporate situations" and named as its clients, AT&T Corp., Coca-Cola Co., American Express Co., BP PLC, Novartis AG and Microsoft Corp.
Those are the names political pollsters want on their roster these days, not politicians.
In the Giving Spirit
I'd like to write a Christmas column about pro bono work by public affairs shops. Please e-mail me examples of good deeds done for free this year by PR folks and lobbyists. Deadline is Dec. 10.
Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.