Researching Political Markets: MarketOriented or Populistic?

Paul R. Baines
Middlesex University Business School, London
Robert M. Worcester
MORI/LSE, London


President Franklin Delano Roosevelts private polling served as an historic turning point in American politics. He employed the talents of Emil Hurja, who conducted polls for the Democratic National Committee. The research guided the Presidents remarkable rapport with the American public, and Emil was perhaps the first 'spindoctor.' The President also used the services of the Princeton academic Hadley Cantrill who not only provided data, but was also a media and communications advisor. Private polls were used as vehicles to advance the Presidents legislative and public relations agendas, and as instruments to measure the popularity of policies not yet codified and candidates not yet announced (Eisenger & Brown 1998). The use of market research for specifically determining the positioning of political candidates was also conducted in the 1952 US Presidential campaign for Eisenhower (against Stevenson) by George Gallup (Niffenegger 1989). In this election, market research was commissioned with the specific objective of determining how to present the candidate to the people. Louis Harris was the data provider. Richard Scammon was the analyst for Jack Kennedy in 1960, Tom Benham of Opinion Research Corporation for Nixon in 1960 and for the Republican National Committee for Goldwater in 1964, and Oliver Quayle for the Democrats also in 1964 (Benham 1965).

Since then, public opinion polling consultants have had a significant influence on American election campaigns. Between the mid 1970s and the late 1980s, Moore (1995) states that the Republican nominees for president used two pollsters: Robert Teeter (who worked for Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George Bush) and Dr Richard Wirthlin who worked for Ronald Reagan (as pollster in his first presidential race and as the campaign director in the second). Wirthlin joined the White House staff under Reagan, serving, it was said, as the first 'Pollster General of the US.'

The Democrat presidential nominees employed three pollsters. These were Pat Caddell who worked for Jimmy Carter and George McGovern, Peter Hart who worked for Walter Mondale, and Irwin 'Tubby' Harrison who worked for Michael Dukakis in 1988. Bill Clinton first employed Stan Greenberg in the 1992 campaign and the firm of Penn & Schoen in 1996.

In the UK, the relationship between polling consultants and politicians has been somewhat less integrative: 'The pollster is rarely part of the partys strategy team, although polling, along with other sources of information, is an input to the communication group,' (Kavanagh 1996). Kavanaghs analysis, inevitably at second hand, somewhat suffers from his belief that his sources, mostly politicians, have as much respect for history as he does, and that what they say is not designed to ensure that the 'outsiders', the pollsters and spin doctors, do not get too much above their station.

During the 1960s, Dr. Mark Abrams first worked with Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell and, subsequently, Harold Wilson, in the 1964 and 1966 elections. He was succeeded by Robert Worcester who was first employed by the Labour Party in the 1970 British General Election, and then continued to work with the Labour Party for 19 years through another six general elections. The Tories first used NOP, whose head of political research was Humphrey Taylor, and then encouraged Taylor and his partner Tommy Thompson, who had been head of communications at Conservative Central Office, to set up Opinion Research Centre. This then conducted the polling for Edward Heath in 1970 and the two 1974 elections, before Taylor went  to America to join the Louis Harris Organisation.

The degree to which a political party can orient itself to the voters and publics it serves is limited. OCass (1997) states that 'the difficulty in transposing marketing into political parties is essentially a function of how organisation centred parties are as opposed to customer centred.' In an Australian based case study, OCass (1997) questions whether political parties with powerful internal markets are precluded from focusing more externally on the voter. Research conducted by Baines et al. (1999b) illustrates that there are cross cultural barriers to inducing marketing orientation in political parties. They have stated that US political parties and candidates are more likely to view political marketing techniques as being of use in the strategic planning and development of campaigns, whereas Western European party executives are more likely to use political marketing to build long term trust among the electorate. The key difference between politics in the US and Western Europe is that it has traditionally been more consumer oriented in the former, whereas it has been more producer led in the latter.

Even when political parties are in power, they often find difficulties in implementing policy, since as Worsley (1969) states, 'one important structural factor is that parties which are actually in power soon find the limits within which innovation can be made without risking disintegration or stimulating radical new kinds of opposition.' Even if a government is customer centred (market oriented) it still may face a civil service, which is not.

Even advising on image strengths and weaknesses can prove problematical: during the run up to the first 1974 election, Worcester found that the British public wanted a political party that 'represented all classes' and was advised by the then publicity director of the Labour Party, Percy Clarke, not to present such heresy to the Campaign committee, saying: 'we are the party of the working class; we do not want middle class votes just to win elections.'


Applying marketing to the wider social and political arena was advocated in the marketing literature by Kotler & Zaltmann (1971) some thirty years ago. They state that 'social marketing is a promising framework for planning and implementing social change.' However, they suggest that the use of overt marketing for social objectives may precipitate charges that such practices are 'manipulative.' Robin & Reidenbach (1987), however, suggest that 'social responsibility and the major traditions of moral philosophy may not be at odds with sound marketing practice' and, thus, from this perspective it could be argued that since marketing per se is not immoral, its transference to politics will also not be immoral if the strain of politics that it markets is not immoral in itself. The application of marketing to politics should consider the collective rather than the few (Butler & Collins 1995; Chapman & Cowdell 1998) in order to further the majority principle of representative democracy.

Political parties, candidates and governments must consider their previous record of promises and pledges if they are to recreate their policies, images and service offerings credibly. Otherwise, they will appear to be behaving in an opportunistic and populist manner (Baines et al. 1999a). The potential to compromise the political organisations ideological integrity has led to the suggestion that the marketing process only becomes applicable once the major political decisions have occurred (see Walsh 1994). From this perspective, marketing is more useful in the dissemination and communication of the policy rather than in its formulation. In such cases, positioning in political markets becomes more product oriented (producer led politics) than market oriented (populist or consumer oriented).

The use of market research to determine the suitability of policies and legislation for public consumption is exemplified by the commissioning of citizens panels in the UK for the marketing of government policy (Etienne 1998) and a departure from producer led politics in the UK. The Clinton Administration has also made extensive use of market research to test government policy and its acceptance among the electorate. The principle of increasing market orientation in government services is expounded by Philip Gould, New Labour strategist and political consultant, who states:

'With the emergence of a new and more responsive relationship between government and citizen, the public has a right to be consulted on issues that will directly affect them. If changes are to be made to the NHS or to schools, we should first listen to the people who use these services. More and more users of public services will behave increasingly as consumers: demanding the best on their terms, instead of what others think is best for them. Market research has a crucial role to play in making this process work.' (Gould 1999, p. xviii)

Kavanagh (1995) states that polling organisations provide political parties and incumbent governments with information on:

  • Election timing in countries where the government determines when to have an election (e.g. the UK)

  • Image building polls provide parties with a picture of how the voters perceive them;

  • Policy Kavanagh (1995) states that opinion polls in Britain are used for the presentation of policy rather than the formulation of the policies themselves (unlike in the US);

  • Tracking parties use polls to determine changes in public opinion

  • Targeting voters

In the US, pollsters conduct benchmark surveys to determine the candidates name recognition levels, their electoral strength visvis their opponents and citizens assessments of an incumbent officeholders performance (Asher 1995, p. 104). This is usually the first phase of the programme of research initiated by a candidate prior to determining whether or not to run for office. Other forms of quantitative market research include panel studies (conducted over a period of time among the same group of respondents), tracking studies (measuring changes in voter perceptions over time using fresh samples on each occasion) and dial groups (measuring perceptions of political broadcasts or advertising), amongst others. There are a large number of techniques for systematically and objectively collecting quantitative data from the electorate and citizen body.

Candidates and parties conduct qualitative research into voters hopes, aspirations and values using focus groups. Worcester used focus groups for the Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s, recalling one group discussion among 'young mums' in Reading who, asked to react to a Labour leaflet for working women, observed: 'I bet they got the only black woman welder in Britain to pose for that picture.' Asher (1995) states that this technique was used very effectively in the 1988 American presidential election, when the Bush campaign team used such groups to identify 'hot button' issues against Dukakis. Focus groups do have the disadvantage of being incapable of being generalised to a broader group of people (Mitofsky 1995) and therefore should be used with this limitation in mind. Despite this, focus groups can be particularly valuable as many political consultants have their own views of the electoral and political process that insulates them from the views of typical voters. One Austin based US political consultant stated:

'Focus groups are wonderful for getting people in touch with the real world. I think its one of the big dangers that consultants have and in certain other groups like lawyers, they start thinking in their own terms that dont relate to anything that anyone else thinks about and they construct a universe in their minds that doesnt have anything to do with the real world.' (Interview with US pollster, January 1998)

The Labour strategist, Philip Gould, conducted hundreds of focus groups across marginal constituencies in the UK, to determine how the British Labour Party could regain the trust of the electorate (see Gould 1999). The focus groups were an important tool in determining how to win back the confidence of people. Gould cites Joe Napolitan (a renowned American political consultant) who states 'what have you done to these people that they should fear you so much?'

Market research can be too expensive for political organisations that may not be well funded, or may be averse to the idea of contracting research. The result is that promotional material often remains untested and largely a product of the politicians (or in the US, political consultants) intuition. In such cases, producer led politics still reigns, as one US consultant aptly states:

'Often in politics you have to throw it out there and see if it works because you dont have the money to test it. If you tested it, you wouldnt have the money to run it after you found that it worked which is one of the reasons why political consultants that are good are in demand because their gut tells them what works, what doesnt work.' (Interview with US general consultant, January 1998)

Market research aims to be objective. Nevertheless, occasionally market researchers have provided political organisations with incorrect information, for example, in the 1989 New York mayoralty and the 1989 Virginia gubernatorial (Asher 1995, p. 125) and in the 1992 British general election when most pollsters indicated that there would be a hung parliament rather than the 21 seat Conservative victory (see Worcester 1998). Worcester (1992) states that 'the five major pollsters, Gallup, Harris, ICM, MORI, and NOP averaged a 1.3 percent Labour lead, (when) the final result was a 7.6 percent lead for the Conservatives.' Yet the share discrepancy hid the fact that if one Conservative voter in 200 had voted for the second party in his/her constituency, the election outcome would have been a hung parliament.

With regard to policy development, there is a need for a balance between formulating policy from information obtained from the electorate and information obtained from politicians and party executives. Whereas pure democracy argues that the public should always be consulted, representative democracy is built on the premise that politicians will often have to assume and estimate the publics view.1 Producer led politics becomes necessary where the electorate (or citizen body) require leadership because their knowledge of policy alternatives is limited, or because the subject matter concerned is highly technical (e.g. the BSE crisis). Even in such cases, however, the government or parties still need to consult the public to determine how the policy will be received.

Perhaps the most effective 'spin' of all time was the Labour Partys 'Road to the Manifesto' the year before the 1997 election, when months before the real Labour manifesto they announced with great fanfare that they would pledge to the electorate that if elected they would deal with the problems of healthcare, education, jobs and crime. What were the top four issues in the polls that the electorate thought the next government should concentrate on? Health, education, jobs and crime. These set the agenda for the election, and the Tories never regained the high ground.


Price (1992) defines opinions as recordable, verbal responses to an issue or question. They are low salience, instant reactions to pollsters questions about current issues. Worcester (1998) says rather too poetically for academic adoption that they are the 'ripples on the surface of the publics consciousness, easily blown about in the winds of political comment and attention by the media. They are easily manipulated by question wording and current affairs, not very important to the respondent, not vital to their wellbeing or that of their family and they are unlikely to have been the topic of discussion or debate between them and their relations, friends and work mates.'

One example of the fickle nature of opinions includes the famous American test of opinions on the fictitious Metallic Metals Act, allegedly before Congress, about which researchers Dr. Donald Rugg and his colleagues found that some 28% of Americans back in the 1940s had a view about their support or opposition (see Rugg 1942).

Another example includes the 10% or so of the British public who believe that ICI makes bicycles a hypothetical product line that they do not manufacture, never did or ever intend to (so far as is known), and yet one person in ten, in work commissioned for ICI in 1969 conducted by MORI, state that they must.

Attitudes, according to Worcester, derive from a deeper level of public consciousness, are held with some conviction, and are likely to have been held for some time and, after thought and discussion, are perhaps the result of behaviour (Festingers 1957 discussion of cognitive dissonance). They are harder to confront or confound. An example of such an attitude is the Scottish support for a separate assembly, held with some force over generations and based on strong beliefs that they are not fairly represented either in Parliament or in the current system of government. For most people, their political views fall into the category of 'attitude' and these people tend to vote, pay some attention to the election process, and think carefully before changing their voting behaviour.

Values are the deepest of all, learned vicariously from parents in many cases and formed early in life. They are less likely to change and strengthen through time. Polls are not particularly good at exploring concepts unfamiliar to respondents, nor are they good at identifying the behaviour, knowledge or views of small groups of the population, except at disproportionate expense. Values are best determined through qualitative research as the researcher is able to probe the respondents answers in more detail. Such research is typically investigated using focus groups.

Market research has sufficient methodological tools to enable determination of whether the electorates (and citizens) views are stable or not regardless of whether they are opinions, attitudes or values. What is important is not which type of data is reported, but whether the commissioning political party (or government department) understands the differences between them.


The role of polls, surveys and assessment of public opinion is not one of advocacy of any particular policy, subject or topic, but as the provider of both objective and subjective information, obtained systematically and objectively, analysed dispassionately and delivered evenly (Worcester 1981). Political decisions about government and party policy should be made in the knowledge of, rather than in the absence of, the publics view.

Price (1992) reminds us that Necker, minister of finance in the preRevolutionary France of the 1780s, popularised the phrase 'lopinion publique,' using the term to refer to a growing dependence of the governments status on the opinion of its creditors. He instituted the publication of national accounts and argued that support from the French elite was necessary for success of the governments policies. He advocated full publication of state activities, becoming not only minister for finance but the first to propose systematic governmental public relations the forerunner to the contemporary UK government information service, the Number 10 press office and the White House spokesman. 'Only fools, pure theorists, or apprentices fail to take public opinion into account,' Necker observed in 1792 (cited in Palmer 1936).

Lippmann (1922) pointed out that the analyst of public opinion must begin by recognising the triangular relationship between the scene of the action, the human picture of that scene, and the human response to that picture working itself out upon the scene of the action. He uses the simile of pictures inside the heads of human beings, the pictures of themselves, of others, and of their needs, purposes and relationship, which he says are their public opinions. Those pictures that are acted upon by groups of people, or by individuals acting in the name of groups, are Public Opinion, with capital letters. He considered first the chief factors which limit the publics access to the facts which he describes as 'artificial censorships' the limitations of social contact, the comparatively meagre time available in each day for paying attention to public affairs, the difficulty of making a small vocabulary express a complicated world and, finally, the fear of facing those facts which would seem to threaten the established routine of peoples lives.

Lippmanns vision of an organisation, a function to assist government, is intriguing. He argues that 'representative government, either in what is ordinarily called politics, or in industry, cannot be worked successfully, no matter what the basis of election, unless there is an independent, expert organisation for making the unseen facts intelligible to those who have to make the decisions.' His argument is that democracy in its original form never seriously faced the problem that arises because the pictures inside peoples heads do not automatically correspond with the world outside. The reality of the world of public policy, incorporating the media and industry, is that it is perception, not fact, which determines public opinion.

'Outside the rather narrow range of our own possible attention, social control depends upon devising standards of living and methods of audit by which the acts of public officials and industrial directors are measured. We cannot ourselves inspire or guide all these acts, as the mystical democrat has always imagined. But we can steadily increase our real control over these acts by insisting that all of them shall be plainly recorded, and their results objectively measured.' (Lippmann 1922)

But over seventy years on, we still see the hesitance of politicians and senior civil servants to fund, encourage, utilise, and employ objective, systematic, interpreted, independent research tools that, in the intervening years, have become almost instantaneous, statistically sound and relatively free of bias.

Why do policy makers fear the findings of survey research? Some pick at it as a bird picks at crumbs on a table, seeking the bit that supports their own prejudice, so they can hold it up to the assembly, quote it to the media and build it into their speeches. If it, inconveniently, does not support the politicians case some will invent a surrogate, as did Tony Benn in his argument in the House of Commons against Britains participation during the Falklands War. Brandishing a handful of letters that supported him (and those who did would, of course, be those who wrote a self selecting sample), he avowed 'public opinion is swinging massively against the war!'

Others dismiss it as mercurial or irrelevant, or both. Former British Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, stated in a letter sent to one of the authors several years ago: 'I believe that if we had followed the polls, we would have been in and out of the [European] Community several times in the last twenty years. On matters of principle, like the Monarchy and membership of the European Community, the job of the politician is to persuade, not automatically to follow. If he fails to persuade, he will lose his objective and fail in his profession.' (Hurd pers. comm.)

Certainly, more research should have been conducted by someone before the Community Charge became Government policy but who should have commissioned it and when is more difficult to answer. There is an argument that public interest demanded that the public be consulted far more objectively and systematically than it was as to the Charges fairness, acceptability and its cost to the public. After all, whose pockets paid billions for it, anyway? Interestingly, when the policy relates more to government self interest, research has been an integral part of the policy formulation (for example, privatisation, where sale to the public and the political aim of wider share ownership were among the objectives, and the tracking of public opinion on the siting of cruise missiles in the 1980s).

Research has, for many years, been commissioned by the COI (Central Office of Information) to track the results of advertising campaigns undertaken by the Government. But this research has been tactical rather than strategic and, too often, an afterthought used to justify the effectiveness of the advertising. In the UK private sector, the research associated with advertising campaigns has traditionally been commissioned by the executives of the advertising agencies who implement the advertising. Ideally, such research should be commissioned independently from, and reported directly back to, the client department.

Conducted properly, opinion polls have no axe to grind and no incentive to manipulate or guide the decision-making process of the voter. They are there not to persuade a person to act in one way or another, or to think or vote in a certain way, but to provide information about what the members of the public think. Politicians, and some newspaper proprietors and editors, are guided by their own desire to see a certain election outcome. Opinion polls are not and there is no incentive for them to be so.


As a term, populism relates to political movements in Europe and the US at the end of the nineteenth century. In the US, the Populist Party was formed in 1890 as a protest movement by farmers and labourers and functioned until 1908 (Kitching 1982). 'The term is now used to describe mass political movements, or a party platform that purports to represent a populist sentiment, usually understood as the collective voice of the ordinary person on social and economic issues.' (Anon 1999). Populism is 'a critique of capitalist industrialisation' (Kitching 1982) and arises in societies and social groups which are peripheral to centres of power (Stewart 1969). The aloof nature of populism is, therefore, reflected in its ideology. 'Populism is so social, so convinced that the political world does not really matter as compared with the community Being apolitical it sees politics as bound up in a single apocalyptic and restorative need; not as an ongoing, fallible and necessary activity.' (McRae 1969)

Wiles (1969) states that populism incorporates (amongst others) the following elements in being moralistic, championed by great leaders, a movement rather than a party; antiintellectual, antiestablishment, and in avoiding a class war. At the end of the twentieth century, however, political parties are concerned with a new managerialism (or what Andrews (1999) refers to as corporate populism) and much more inclusive of the opinions of industrialists and corporate interests in the city. Modern Western political parties are far from anticapitalist. The British Labour Party and the US Democratic Party have both tried to champion moralist agendas (witness the so-called ethical foreign policy of the British Labour Party). One might question whether these parties are championed by 'great' leaders, however. If this means winning two consecutive elections in the case of US President, Bill Clinton, and bringing the party from the brink of decline in the case of British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, perhaps they are, although these personalities could hardly be regarded as demagogues. In both cases, the party acts as the prime mover for furthering the doctrine of moderate democratic politics although the leader symbolises the movement. It could be argued that there is a general movement towards liberal democratic politics tinged with social justice but this has been precipitated by the parties, as opposed to the movement producing the parties. Both parties are concerned with providing education to all, rather than as a function of class, but could hardly be referred to as antiintellectual. Again, in both cases, the parties are attempting to include all parts of society in their electoral franchise, and are intimately concerned with middle class voters who represent the dominant class in the latter part of the twentieth century in major Western economies.

It is the parties concern with middle class voters that heralds the loudest cry of populism (from the contemporary meaning of the word). However, this portion of society represents the majority of the electorate (as employment practices increasingly tend towards the service sector) and, since Western governments are concerned with implementing representative democracy, it would appear that such dissenters are arguing that their governments represent the few rather than the many.


Failure to take into account public opinion can lead to spectacular mistakes in public policy. This has been particularly true in the area of British food policy. For instance, Edwina Currie (a former health minister in the UK Conservative government in the late 1980s) made a statement on the link between Salmonella and eggs, which resulted in dramatic falls in the sales of eggs and subsequent vilification by farmers. More recently, after the British Conservative governments mishandling of the BSE crisis (in which the government failed to adequately quantify and inform the public of the risk of contracting CJD [CreutzfeldtJakob disease] from cattle infected with BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy]), many high street food outlets (e.g. McDonalds, Tesco) removed British beef from their range of meat products entirely. Beef sales only recovered subsequently after the slaughter of all herds aged over two years and a spirited campaign by the Meat and Livestock Commission (its own campaign based partly on focus group data illustrating that consumers were more concerned with minced beef and burgers than prime cuts see Irvin 1999).

Governments and political parties are toppled when they fail to take public opinion into account. Governments are, after all, elected by the public! The failure of the British Labour Party to return to office for eighteen years after their defeat in 1979 exemplifies this point, since this was mainly due to the electorates (perceived) disaffection with the partys industrial relations policy and the British Conservative Partys (under Maurice Saatchis direction) successful attempts to label the first months of 1979 as the Winter of Discontent with the Labour isnt working campaign.

The greater use of opinion polling does not in itself represent a move towards populism. Populism occurs when the political process neglects the needs of an important citizen group (with a high degree of latent power). Opinion polling is simply a process by which this data are collected. Increasingly, public sector organisations are beginning to use marketing and market research methods to determine whether they are effectively and efficiently providing their customers with quality goods and services. The use of market research in such spheres not only represents an increasing tendency towards market orientation in the public sector, but also represents the increasing accountability with which government departments and their associated civil servants are held by their controlling bodies. For example, in the UK, government spending is monitored by the Comptroller and Auditor General in conjunction with the National Audit Office.

Governments and parties need to collect data on public opinion, attitudes and values in order to inform their policy formulation and enable their election and, once elected, to stay in office. But they also need to collect data on public opinions to effectively represent the people whom they are elected to serve. It is populism and representative democracy that are paradoxical since pure representative democracy will encompass populistic tendencies as a feature. The paradox arises from the extent of the degree of representation. Market research and representative democracy are less paradoxical since both seek to understand their target groups (i.e. customers and citizens, respectively). The difference between the two is essentially a question of perspective, since marketing is fundamentally concerned with how the organisation can facilitate an exchange relationship with a customer of its choosing (and market research provides the information on how to do this). In contrast, representative democracy is concerned with representing the whole of society.

Figure 1 illustrates the nature of representative democracy as an incorporator of market research into public policy, filtering it first through the political organisation. The diagram demonstrates that the process is cyclical and that some of the processes are interactive. For example, descriptive and/or exploratory market research feeds into the political organisation but the political organisation has an impact upon the type of market research that is conducted. Later, after draft public policy has been developed, it is usually tested using market research techniques such as citizens panels (see Etienne 1998) which usually collect data of a more quantitative nature. In Figure 1, if the policy testing stage illustrates that the policy needs amending, public opinion is sought again and the process repeats.

Figure 2 illustrates the nature of populism. In this diagram, the market research data have a more direct impact upon public policy. In this scenario, public policy is largely determined from the research findings, although the form of this research is determined by the political organisation. Nevertheless, the policy that arises from this process is still tested and if it does not conform to the peoples expectations, public opinion is resought and the process repeats. It should also be noted that public opinion also actually feeds directly into the market research process itself in a populistic situation since political parties are not the only organisations that commission market research studies (for example, news organisations do so as well).

The argument against collecting public opinion is that public opinion may be shallow and subject to the vicissitudes of current events. This fact has not been contested in this paper. The suggestion is not that political parties and organisations collect data on issues about which there is public clamour (e.g. the death sentence and hanging), since such issues represent emotional responses rather than considered attitudes or opinions, but that political parties and organisations collect data per se. How they use it, and the interpretation they place upon it, is their concern and responsibility.

The criticism of market research techniques in British politics (see Kellner 1999) stems particularly from the use of focus groups by the Labour Party before and after the last election, when Philip Gould (an external Labour Party strategist and general consultant) moderated Labour Party focus groups in marginal constituencies (see Gould 1999). The research ethos has now transferred to government policy, and counts amongst its dissenters the Deputy Prime Minister, The Right Honourable John Prescott, MP. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that, although Gould was moderating his own groups (further increasing the subjectivity of the findings), the extent to which the research could be used to develop policy was limited since parties cannot credibly position themselves without taking some account of the views of their politicians and their (recent) previous policy statements.


The use of opinion polling and qualitative research in public sector and political markets is widely misunderstood. It can provide understanding, analysis and tracking of the behaviour, knowledge, opinions, attitudes and values of the public. By measuring this, within the limits of the science of sampling and the art of asking questions, surveys can determine what people do and think. Via the media, polls can then be used to inform others of this information for their own use in whatever way they may wish to use it.

Pollsters do their client a disservice, in the longer term, by doing anything other than being completely honest in the choice of questions, in the depth of the analysis (no conclusions rejected because they are not 'politically correct') or in the budgeting of the work. In order to function properly, pollsters need the resources to do the work they believe needs doing, the freedom to ask the questions that committed party workers and political volunteers feel might blight their preference for appointment or promotion if they are seen to be doing the asking, continuity of work flow, so that the 'long campaign' research informs the election campaign itself, access to and the confidence of the party leader, or commissioning civil servant and, finally, the political 'nous' to understand the environment that they are researching.

Market research and systematic data collection is not a function of populism; rather, market research is a function of good practice in representative government since it relies on public opinion, and its elucidation, to exist. The use of market research in political markets is simply following the trend of increasing market orientation in commerce, generally, and in social markets, particularly. Populism in government is exemplified when market research data feeds directly into government policy with little input from the political organisation. In a representative democracy, public opinion should be a consideration in public policy formulation, collected through the use of market research methods. However, the need for strong political leadership is still paramount, particularly in the information age.


1. See Lippmann's (1992) definition of public opinion on page 9 of this paper for more on the difficulties of representative democracy.


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Paul R. Baines

Middlesex University Business School

Paul R. Baines is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Middlesex University Business School. He is a full member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, a Chartered Marketer, an Associate member of the MRS and author of numerous articles on marketing for non�conventional services such as football clubs and parties.

Robert M. Worcester

MORI and London School of Economics

Robert M. Worcester is Chairman of MORI and Visiting Professor of Government, as well as a Governor at LSE. He is also a Visiting Professor at the Graduate Centre for Journalism at City University, and at the Department of Marketing at the University of Strathclyde. He is a fellow of the MRS, co�editor of the Consumer Market Research Handbook and co�author of Explaining Labour's Landslide.