In the last few days of the Republican gubernatorial primary election in 1992, the Mike Leavitt campaign began receiving dozens of phone calls from people who had heard negative accusations and stories about our candidate. We initially just laughed it off, because the accusations were crazy.
But the calls, both from concerned supporters and voters wondering if the charges were true, kept coming. We soon learned that someone was conducting a phone campaign spreading these rumors. Then people called telling us that flyers were being handed out in at least three shopping malls making accusations against Leavitt. Several people brought copies of the handouts into campaign headquarters and said they were being distributed widely.
By now we felt like we were under siege and we were getting a little panicky. We'd received 30 or 40 calls and visits and they just seemed to keep coming. We talked about whether to call a press conference, issue a news release, or what.
Thankfully, by that time in the campaign we were doing a daily tracking poll, a rolling 600 total sample with 200 new calls a night. We decided to hold off and see if our numbers took any kind of a hit that night. The next morning's tracking results didn't even show a blip. The next day was the same.
Still, we were concerned and worried that our polling could be missing something. And then our tracking numbers began to trend a bit negative. We wondered what was going wrong. Were these attacks having an impact? Did we have a bad TV or radio spot? Was our opponent gaining momentum?
Senate candidate Bob Bennett was tracking at the same time, using a different firm. His numbers showed us holding steady. That made us feel better, but we still weren't sure if we were OK, or needed a quick strategy change. So we called a national polling firm and had them, overnight, do a very large 2,400 sample. It was expensive, but we felt we had to know where we stood. The numbers showed we were holding steady. There was no need to change our plan and panic or overreact.
The phone and flyer negative campaign was having no impact because while it seemed big to us, it really wasn't hitting many people and it couldn't compete with our heavy mass media campaign.
It would have been easy to overreact and turn nothing into something, give it extra attention, if we didn't have good survey research.
So good research is essential, but remember that research does have limits. Candidates who live entirely by research, die by research. Research is only one of the elements that ought to go into campaign strategy and decision-making. Obviously, research must be conducted properly, interpreted properly and the results used properly or it can do more harm than good. Good research must be combined with good political instincts, experience, good campaign plan, and good execution.