Most election pollsters aren't really in it for the money

*Most election polls are loss leaders, designed for marketing.
*Brand recognition is often the main goal, not accuracy.
*The real money is giving advice to campaigns.

Every day in this election cycle it seems like there are new polls about the presidential race, and it seems like somebody must be making a lot of money from all that data collection.

But here's the thing: Most of these polls were never meant to make money. They are just marketing and brand placement to help sell something else.

Even the biggest firms, like Gallup, give away political polls to promote the commercial market research for which corporate clients will pay hundreds of millions of dollars. Information like "how often do you shave?" and "what kind of razors do you buy?" helps consumer products firms hone their businesses.

Or take colleges and universities like Quinnipiac, Marist and Monmouth. If it weren't for their polling operations, you may not recognize those names at all. That brand recognition attracts more applications, better students and more prestige and tuition money for the schools.

The only real money in election polling goes to the pollsters hired by the campaigns. And those millions of dollars are less for the polls themselves than the guru-like advice the pollsters provide to the candidates to shape messaging and strategy.


Loss leaders for marketing

"Most polls are a loss leader for marketing," said one California-based strategist who has managed many local and statewide campaigns there. "It's about creating a brand that people recognize, which in turn legitimizes the research that companies will pay for."

Survey research companies like Public Policy Polling, YouGov and American Research Group publish dozens of polls that get their names out in public during the election. The exposure can pay off in private marketing efforts later — a market that is about five times bigger than the one for political polling.

From a campaign's point of view, all those individual polls are "essentially promotion" rather than useful data points, said the strategist, who declined to be named to preserve his business relationships. He said that fundamentally, they are a way to tell the score in a horse race, feeding the public's need for daily data.

Every school wants to be the next Quinnipiac

Like many polling companies, many colleges and universities are also now using political polling as a loss-leader, trading information for public exposure and better name recognition. About a third of political polls this year have been conducted by colleges and universities, compared to less than 15 percent in past years, according to a CNBC analysis of data maintained by news site FiveThirtyEight.

Many are following the blueprint established by Quinnipiac University, which used a prominent polling program to aid in a rapid expansion that tripled its student body. Today, more than 200 schools are members of the American Association for Public Opinion Research , according to data provided by a spokesman.

"That's one of the benefits, and certainly something that the administration likes," said Spencer Kimball, a pollster and the advisor for the Emerson College Polling Society, which uses polling to teach students and has dramatically increased its poll output in this election cycle. "They like to see the college names in the papers."

Emerson, which uses robo-calling, is spending about $100,000 on polls this cycle and expects it will have published about 80 by the time the election is over. That's a tiny budget compared to schools that are using phone banks, which cost $12,000 to $15,000 per poll if students are running the phones or $18,000 to $20,000 if they're using outside phone banks, Kimball said.

Michael Traugott, a professor who studies polling at the University of Michigan and is a former president of AAPOR, echoed those estimates, adding that a complex live interview poll could cost up to $40,000, but robo-polling can be as cheap as $5,000 to $10,000 for a typical poll. That's a relatively low cost for the visibility polls can bring.

But not all polls are equally accurate, and some in the polling industry say that robo-polling (which, by law, can't contact cell phones) and misuse of statistical techniques have eroded poll quality in some cases. One veteran pollster told CNBC that in his past working days, certain colleges would call him up asking what their poll results should be.

"Technology has allowed people to enter the field without much formal training and we see that periodically with some problems that pollsters have," Traugott said. "You can run an operation with really low overhead, you can pay somebody to do the interview and you can even pay somebody to analyze the data for you."

The news agencies

Some of the most prominent polls are conducted by large media outlets, often in partnership with other companies. Those include CNN's polls with Opinion Research Corporation, NBC's new deal with Survey Monkey, Fox News' surveys with Anderson Robbins Research and Shaw and Company Research, and CBS's 40-year partnership with the New York Times.

Those companies, as well as many smaller local outlets, have an obvious interest in creating news through polling. But there isn't much money to be made in running media polls.

"Media pollsters come and go, disappear left and right," Jay Leve, CEO of SurveyUSA, said in an email. "You operate on tiny margins."

Media organizations have been under a lot of pressure to cut costs, while at the same time improving data quality, Traugott said. Those cost considerations have some pollsters relying on weighting algorithms that can skew the results — for instance, the recent criticism leveled at the methodology used by the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times, which let one respondent have undue influence on the findings.

"This is a fairly direct impact of the financial hard times in the industry," Traugott said. "For some pollsters they cut back on the number of polls, for others they try to cut costs by altering the mode of data collection by going from the phone to web or face-to-face interviews to robo-calls."

The guys who bring in the money

The final group of pollsters worth mentioning are the ones we hear the least about — the internal pollsters working for the campaigns themselves. That's where the real money is made, said Leve, because those pollsters are paid for ongoing analysis and strategy and working for big-name politicians can bring in additional outside business.

Take, for example, Joel Benenson: He was President Barack Obama's chief pollster since the beginning of his campaign in 2008, and now he's Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's chief strategist and pollster. Beneson Strategy Group provided at least $5 million in services in the 2008 cycle, and has already charged even more in this cycle, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

That's not just for the polls themselves, but for his analysis, consulting and strategic guidance that help the candidate use the data to shape her policy, messaging and campaign approach.

This area of expertise mixing polling and strategy is so important that it even has its own class at Harvard, taught by government professor Stephen Ansolabehere and Mark Penn, who was White House pollster for six years. They told CNBC that polling is an art first, with science second.

"The real value of a pollster is not just in reporting the numbers, but in interpreting the numbers and providing advice," Penn said.

The Harvard class isn't filled with students who want to be pollsters in their career, but rather to be global leaders themselves or to advise leaders, knowing how to use polls to manage decisions. Ansolabehere described in-house campaign polling as part of the data feeding into analytics and strategy. Students learn how to interpret "complex situations" where the research and reality may disagree.

Even with the Donald Trump campaign apparently spending almost nothing on polls, it look like pollsters will make plenty of money from other national and local campaigns. As of August, the Clinton campaign has attributed nearly $9 million in spending to just "polling" alone (not including other strategic services), while Trump's unique campaign has recorded only $150,000. In 2012, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each recorded about $5 million in "polling" expenditures.

"Whatever he is missing out on, I think Clinton picked up," Kimball said. "I don't think the industry is hurting for political polls."

Despite some of the financial and methodological challenges facing pollsters today, many of the experts we talked to were optimistic that new technology and increased demand for poll results are ushering in a great time to be in the business.

"I think we're entering a new golden age of polling, certainly for those who know how to use all the data and new technology that's available," said Anthony Salvanto, director of elections at CBS News. "We've never had more information or more ways to learn what people think – and after all, it's listening to people that makes polling really worthwhile."

Note: The comment from Anthony Salvanto at CBS News was added to the story after it was initially published.