Like others who tread the rather obscure path to being a pollster, I became one by accident. Maths wasn’t particularly my strong point at school, and I certainly never wanted to be a market researcher of which polling is a sub-set (and which is, frankly, mostly super-dull).
My journey began with an obsessive interest in politics: it was while working as a lobbyist that I was appointed to troubleshoot a failing research unit which sparked my interest in how opinion shapes political decisions.
Helpfully, at around that time polling was given a huge boost by Tony Blair, whose 1997 administration changed the influence landscape forever by allowing focus groups to drive decisions. At the same time, organisations began to worry about what ‘stakeholders’ – a new word in the political lexicon at the time – thought about them.
The other big change was the internet, which smashed the old-fashioned supply chain of data collection (telephone and face-to-face), giving ComRes the opportunity of buying in online fieldwork faster and cheaper. Also, we could just do the fun bit: designing research and analysing the numbers into a meaningful context.
The polling industry today remains pretty small. There are just 26 company members of the UK’s British Polling Council, most of which you will never have heard of, and some are tiny.
However, polling has become an invaluable part of policymaking and an essential tool for managing corporate reputation. The polling you see in newspapers, calculating vote share for political parties, probably accounts for less than 5% of a pollster’s business. The vast bulk is corporate, and just about every major company, charity, government, political party, and trade association will be using it to direct their corporate strategy and measure their impact. Energy firms will be tracking political sentiment towards them, for fear of being regulated out of existence. Governments and the huge sprawl of publicly funded agencies are even more concerned to stay on-trend. They will be polling the public, MPs, councillors, customers, their neighbours, Uncle Tom Cobley, and all.
What difference does polling make? A lot. The skills that used to be deployed solely to hone messages that expanded consumer markets are now devoted to creating messages that communicate ideas and values.
And sometimes, of course, the stakes are extremely high. On abortion, for instance, the slogan ‘a woman’s right to choose’ is supremely powerful – such, in fact, that voters often will vigorously support the concept while agreeing that the rights of a mother do not outweigh the rights of the unborn. Political scientists call that ‘cognitive dissonance’.
I also discovered early on at ComRes that many secular campaigns (mis)used polling to push misleading claims about public opinion. One such example was the polling in the 2000s promoting a Parliamentary Bill to legalise assisted suicide. By asking bad questions about people’s faith, the views of Christians were widely misrepresented in an attempt to claim that even Christians supported something they clearly did not. It is vital on such issues to ensure that proponents don’t get away with misrepresenting the views of Christians, Muslims, Jews, or any other group which is widely misunderstood by the public square.
Why do we need Christian pollsters? Here are six reasons.
- Integrity – the work of a pollster stands or falls on their ability to reveal the truth about an issue or a population. Moral relativists should automatically question whether polling is for them.
- To make a difference – biblical literacy levels are pitifully poor, and the world of polling mostly cannot understand the Christian mindset. More importantly, we need good people flooding every corner of the political establishment (lobbying, polling, advertising, social media, political parties, Parliament, the Civil Service, think tanks) or we cannot complain when public policy fails to promote the common good or bring glory to God.
- To enable more effective Christian engagement – even if you don’t work directly on faith-related clients, your skills and energy can be deployed for gospel work. One former colleague who worked on health clients served as a Board member of a prominent evangelical Christian organisation in order to make her polling skills available.
- To push back against prevailing values – without wishing to make sweeping generalisations, many of those working in polling, as in many other careers, have a post-modern, secular mindset. It is absolutely vital that Christians can get stuck into these workplaces. You really can make a profound difference there.
- It can be convivial and fun – especially if you love politics and find a role in a specialist polling firm. Politicos are a wonderfully friendly and interesting bunch.
- It can be a great political springboard – if you’re at all interested in keeping open the door to a career in politics, then polling is an excellent way of filling your contact book, giving you a personal profile, having something interesting to say, and being of genuine use to a political party.
Having left ComRes last year, would I make the same career choice again? You bet.