Crazy Political Polling Season (Again)

Election winners aren’t always the leaders in pre-vote polls, especially in the beginning of the crazy political polling season.

Election winners aren’t always the leaders in pre-vote polls, especially in the beginning of the crazy political polling season.

Donald Trump perpetually trumpets his lead in national polls. Bernie Sanders points to his surge from obscurity to a virtual tie in Iowa. Marco Rubio tells his supporters his showing in the Hawkeye State surpassed polling predictions.

Yes, it’s that crazy political polling season again.

Polls serve a purpose, but you have to take them, certainly at this point in the presidential campaign, with a grain of salt.

Trump outpolled rival GOP contender Ted Cruz in Iowa, but the ground game Cruz put together won the day in caucus sites. Were the polls wrong or did they just miscalculate the impact of Cruz staffers going door-to-door to nail down supporters who would brave winter cold to caucus? Turnout in elections is hard for polls to predict accurately.

Last-minute candidate surges can trick polls. They can be overstated or understated. Or missed, like Rubio’s in Iowa. Even weekly polls can be too slow to track fast-moving voter impressions.

How well candidates fare with key cohorts of voters can be missed, too. Hillary Clinton’s “upset” victory over Barack Obama in the 2008 New Hampshire primary was traced to polling samples that under-represented lower income voters who didn’t have or take the time to respond to telephone polls. The same problem can occur now if pollsters don’t include respondents only reachable on cell phones.

National polls can obscure state-level electoral leanings. Bernie Sanders may thrive in New Hampshire, which has a very liberal, white Democratic base and is next to his home state of Vermont. Hillary Clinton may have a clear advantage in South Carolina where African Americans dominate the Democratic base. Even though Cruz trailed Trump in national polls, he concentrated his efforts in Iowa on Christian evangelical voters who have a history of determining who wins the GOP vote there.

Polling techniques can have subtle influences on outcomes, which is why different polls taken at the same time with equivalent samples and sample sizes produce varying results. One of the factors in polling discrepancies is “tactical voting” or undecided voters declaring a preference they really don’t mean. When you have a lot of candidates, this factor grows in significance.

Then there is the confusion between polls and probabilities. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight earned a reputation – and skeptics – for basing candidate predictions on a different statistical analysis, not on the candidate's poll numbers. In a tweet following the Iowa caucuses Monday night, Silver said, “Polls in general elections = pretty good. Polls in primaries = much less accurate. Iowa caucus = especially tough.”

In a blog before the caucus, Silver said poll numbers don’t lie; they just don’t tell you the truth. “Could Marco Rubio win the Iowa caucuses despite not having led in a single poll here?” Silver wrote. "Sure. Rick Santorum did that exact thing four years ago.”

So if you are influenced by poll numbers in the early going of the presidential race, you might want to reconsider. The political polling crazy season is just beginning (again).

The Overlooked Plight of America’s 'Middle Child'

Generation X gave us all sorts of pop culture treasures, like Nirvana, Molly Ringwald and Ethan Hawke. But sandwiched between the Baby Boomer generation and the fast rising Millennials of today, Generation X has become America's forgotten middle child. 

Generation X gave us all sorts of pop culture treasures, like Nirvana, Molly Ringwald and Ethan Hawke. But sandwiched between the Baby Boomer generation and the fast rising Millennials of today, Generation X has become America's forgotten middle child. 

As Baby Boomers fade into the sunset and Millennials are on the ascendancy, members of Generation X feel overlooked. And at least one Gen Xer is mad as hell about it.

Mat Honan, a card-carrying member of Gen X, launched a rant on Tumblr that summed up his disgust with whining by Boomers and Millennials. “First generation to do worse than their parents? Been there. Done that.”

"Generation X is tired of your sense of entitlement. Generation X also graduated during a recession. It had even s#*#*#*# jobs, and actually had to pay for its own music. (At least, when music mattered most to it.) Generation X is used to being f#*#*# over. It lost its meager savings in the dot-com bust. Then came George Bush, and 9/11, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Generation X bore the brunt of all that. And then came the housing crisis.

"Generation X wasn't surprised. Generation X kind of expected it.

"Generation X is a journeyman. It didn't invent hip hop, or punk rock, or even electronica (it's pretty sure those dudes in Kraftwerk are Boomers), but it perfected all of them, and made them its own. It didn't invent the Web, but it largely built the damn thing. Generation X gave you Google and Twitter and blogging; Run DMC and Radiohead and Nirvana and Notorious B.I.G. Not that it gets any credit.

"But that's okay. Generation X is used to being ignored, stuffed between two much larger, much more vocal, demographics. But whatever! Generation X is self-sufficient. It was a latchkey child. Its parents were too busy fulfilling their own personal ambitions to notice any of its trophies, which were admittedly few and far between because they were only awarded for victories, not participation."

It's hard to believe 60 million people could be ignored, but Generation X has become known as the Forgotten Generation. The Pew Research Center has referred to Generation X as America’s neglected “middle child.”

Even though a Gen Xer occupies the White House, this generation lacks its own distinctive identity.

A Bloomberg Business report last year said it is a generation that has grown up and become grumpy.

"The members of Generation X have plenty to be grumpy about. For starters, no one talks about them anymore. It’s all Millennials all the time. There’s another reason Americans born between 1965 and 1980 are gloomy: Gen Xers are in even worse shape financially than the baby boomers who preceded them or the millennials who followed.

"Sure, many Boomers haven’t saved enough for retirement. And Millennials are squeezed by high student-loan debt. But Gen Xers are still paying off student loans while raising families on wages that have barely budged in recent years. They have more debt than other age groups and are more pessimistic about ever being able to afford to retire, according to many surveys.

"Almost 40 percent say they 'don’t at all feel financially secure,' and 38 percent have more debt than savings, more than any other generation, according to a recent survey of 5,474 Americans by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. On average, people in their 40s had saved $62,087 in 401(k) retirement plans at the end of 2013, according to the Employee Benefits Research Institute. That means Gen Xers who plan to retire at 65 have a considerable way to go to accumulate the $1 million they’ll need to generate $40,000 a year as seniors.”

It probably makes business sense to give a little love to America’s middle child.

Making Research Personal

Don’t brush off research as too expensive. Make it personal and take your customers out for coffee or create an advisory board to hear what they have to say.

Don’t brush off research as too expensive. Make it personal and take your customers out for coffee or create an advisory board to hear what they have to say.

The chance of making a bad decision increases significantly when decisions are based on speculation.

Some companies and organizations continue to guess what customers, consumers and constituents want without asking their opinions. Managers complain research is too expensive, time consuming or too difficult to conduct. Whatever the excuse, decision-making without information is still pasta marketing: throwing your ideas against the wall and hoping something sticks.

Get personal with your research. Take on the task of talking directly with customers and constituents. Ask them to be part of your decision-making team.

Here are three easy, effective research techniques that any group or organization can use.

1. Get information by walking around: Go out and talk to customers. Introduce yourself. Explain what you are doing. Ask for their help. You will be surprised how interested and helpful people can be when asked.

2. Hold an informal focus group: Invite people to meet with you in a conference room or coffee shop. The keys to success are to keep the groups small (six to eight people is ideal), invite people that have similar characteristics and ask open-ended questions, letting participants talk while you listen. Keep the atmosphere casual and fun. Oh, and don’t forget the food and drinks. Those are essential.

3. Create a customer advisory board: Invite up to 15 people to meet with you quarterly. Share new ideas or problems and ask the group to respond. Don’t include current volunteers or your usual trusted advisors. You want new faces and new ideas. Let the group know what you are doing with the information between sessions to validate participation and keep them interested.

Any of these techniques will provide managers with new insights about what the organization does well, where improvement is needed and how to communicate effectively. Other benefits of getting personal with research include engaging customers, developing new relationships and creating advocates who will generate positive buzz among friends and family.

Tom Eiland is a CFM partner and the leader of the firm’s research practice. His work merges online research with client communications and engagement efforts, and he has a wide range of clients in the education, health care and transportation sectors. In his free time, Tom enjoys cycling, golf, reading and cooking. You can reach him at tome@cfmpdx.com

The Many Forms of Market Research

Gaining insight into human behavior, especially the interaction with new technology tools, is a priority for companies such as Adobe, which are turning unexpectedly to cultural anthropologists for assistance.

Gaining insight into human behavior, especially the interaction with new technology tools, is a priority for companies such as Adobe, which are turning unexpectedly to cultural anthropologists for assistance.

Technology companies are bulking up their product design teams with cultural anthropologists to guide the interaction between machine and humans.

A profession best known for researching the ancient sexual rituals of Pacific Islanders may seem an odd choice to shape modern technology. However, companies such as Adobe, Intel and Ricoh see value in the insights into human behavior by cultural anthropologists.

In a blog post titled “Anthropology: The Secret Sauce for Building Tech We Love,” Adobe describes how it retained anthropologist Charles Pearson who spent two years observing users of Photoshop, the company's sophisticated image-editing software tool. Pearson watched a variety of users at work and questioned them about specific features of the software, as well as their overall perspective on the tool.

“I would spend a few days a week – watching, listening, asking questions and participating when appropriate,” says Pearson. “I was new to this design world, but it was clear to me that the epicenter, the energetic core of web and app design, was right there and new practices and communities were emerging that Adobe needed to pay attention to.”

The result was an updated version of Photoshop that included features users wanted and functionality they needed. “As tech companies strive to compress their time to market for new products, anthropology is helping to ensure that new rollouts are user-friendly from the get-go,” explains Adobe. Pearson’s insights also gave Adobe a leg up in knowing how to talk to an ever-evolving community of Photoshop users.

Ricoh has tapped cultural anthropologists to sketch the “ecosystem of the retail shelf” with hints on how consumers interact with products they see. Intel includes anthropologists on its team designing wearable devices.

Human behavior isn’t always easy to decipher. You may not be able to afford your own anthropologist, but the more you know about the behavior of your consumers and constituents, the better off you will be.

The role of cultural anthropologists in designing modern technology devices is just another reminder that market research can take many forms.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Market Research Can Be Simple as Spending a Day in the Grocery Aisle

Talking with customers at Seattle's Whole Foods Market provided the insight for how to introduce the organic feed chain's first store in Portland.

Talking with customers at Seattle's Whole Foods Market provided the insight for how to introduce the organic feed chain's first store in Portland.

One of the most often stated reasons to skip market research is cost. However, there are many low-cost ways to get the market data you need.

The simplest form of research is to talk to customers. We were given the chance to handle the PR for the first Whole Foods Market in Oregon. To prepare, we asked for permission to go to its nearest store at the time, the University District in Seattle.

A team of us walked through the store and individually chatted with customers and with Whole Foods Market employees. When we compared notes, there was a universal thread – shoppers came for the food.

Well, you say, that's why all shoppers go to grocery stores. True, but the Whole Foods customers come because of the quality of the food, for which they are willing to pay extra.

I interviewed a U.S. Post Office deliveryman who stopped off at Whole Foods on a break. "I can't afford to buy all my groceries here," he told me, "but I buy all the food that I really want here." That summed it up.

Our team started our presentation to Whole Foods officials with a slide that said, "It's all about the food." A simple insight, but not necessarily an obvious one. The simplicity of our insight, which doubled as our proposed campaign tagline, won us the job.

The cost of our market research – a day away from the office and a tank of gas.

Talking to people – whether it's at a checkout counter or in a focus group – can yield invaluable information that puts you on a successful path. If we hadn't taken the time to drive to Seattle to spend a day in a Whole Foods Market, we probably would have talked up the store's uniqueness for selling only organic food and dreamed up ways to offset the chain's spendy reputation as "Whole Paycheck." And we would have lost the gig.

Our research reduced our thinking to the essence of Whole Foods, why people really came, why people in Portland would come. It guided our recommendations on what to emphasize, what to show and where to show it.  Everything we produced and distributed dripped with luscious pictures of food – from the artistic and colorful pepper displays to the enticing fish counter.

The research proved itself on the mark. People lined up around an entire block in the Pearl District waiting for the store to open. The store remained crowded all day and it turned out to the highest volume first-day opening in the Austin-based chain's history. It may still be.

There was no big data or scientific poll. We just talked to customers and let them show us the way to success. Who can't afford to do that? 

​A Humming Economy with Trouble Below the Surface

On the surface, the Portland metropolitan area's economy seems to be humming. Just under the surface, things don't look quite so rosy.

The Portland region's economy continues to grow jobs, but full-time jobs and per capita income continue to lag other comparable metro areas.

The Portland region's economy continues to grow jobs, but full-time jobs and per capita income continue to lag other comparable metro areas.

According to the sixth annual Value of Jobs economic check-up released last week, job growth in the Portland region continues at a strong pace for the seventh consecutive year, at a rate outpacing most other peer metro regions across the nation. Portland added 35,800 jobs in the last year and now boasts 70,000 more jobs than its pre-recession peak in 2007.

However, the per capita rate of full-time jobs in the Portland region falls below the U.S. metro average and has actually declined since 2000 to only 47.9 percent of total employment.

The decline of full-time employment in Portland parallels – and may be the cause of – a troubling shrinkage of middle income households, which has serious implications for affordability in the region's hot housing market. In 1980, the study says, middle-income jobs represented 69 percent of the Portland region's total employment, but that number has fallen to 57 percent and continues to drop.

The study reaffirms Portland's outsized economic reliance on manufacturing and exports. It also points out those solid numbers rely heavily on jobs and exports associated with semiconductor manufacturing. Without Intel's output, the Portland region's manufacturing sector would be just on par with other peer metro areas. Likewise, semiconductor products represent 41 percent of the Portland region's exports.

The Value of Jobs study says the decline in the Portland region's per capita income began at least a decade before the last recession and fell below the national average as early as 2007, when the national economy peaked.

A key goal of the Oregon Business Plan is to boost per capita income, but that hasn't happened. The Portland region is now $1,821 below the $47,615 national average for metro areas. Real per capita income in Portland has only increased by $740 since 2000.

The study for the third year measured median household income, which yielded a brighter note for the Portland region. Even though median household income has remained stagnant in Portland, it still surpasses the national metro area average by $3,700. Portland checks in higher than peer metro areas such as St. Louis, Cincinnati and Sacramento, but trails Salt Lake City, Seattle and Denver, and it falls short of aspirational levels expressed by local business leaders.

As Oregon politicians and voters wrangle with a higher minimum wage, the Value of Jobs data indicates that Portland's lowest wage-earners (the bottom 20 percent) earn 19 percent more than the national average, which could be attributed to Oregon's relatively high minimum wage. It is the top end of the wage scale that lags behind other regions and pulls down the Portland region's overall per capita income.

The economic check-up is part of the Value of Jobs Campaign launched in 2010 to examine the Portland region's job market. The coalition that supports the effort includes the Portland Business Alliance, Associated Oregon Industries, Oregon Business Association, Oregon Business Council and the Port of Portland.