By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 30, 2008
What if the 2008 presidential election were decided by voters acting not on their political judgments or analyses of the candidates, but on their emotions? In the view of some experts, this is a trick question -- of course the election will be decided emotionally. Elections always are.
"Campaigns are about emotions and values more than about information," says John Russonello, a partner in a research and communications firm who loves to discover the feelings and visceral reactions that can move voters.
Russonello does this with focus groups, now a ubiquitous tool in American politics and business. First used in the middle of the 20th century, the focus group -- typically a gathering of up to a dozen people chosen for particular demographic and political characteristics -- has become big business. In national and statewide political campaigns, they are as common as bumper stickers but a lot less visible. Usually focus groups are staged for small audiences -- representatives of the people paying for them. Tonight the public has an unusual opportunity to watch an entire two-hour focus group session on C-SPAN at 8 p.m. More about that in a moment.
Polls, the lifeblood of American politics, can also tell us what people think -- which candidate they favor, how much they approve of a president, whether they believe the war in Iraq was worth fighting. But polls are science, exploiting the mathematical laws of random samples to explain what "everyone" thinks by asking the right 1,200 or so Americans the same questions. Focus groups, by contrast, are art. Their success depends on the skills of the person leading the discussion. A talented focus-grouper tries to expose the emotional juice that can both explain and alter poll results.
A famous example of such alteration occurred in 1984. Peter Hart, a prominent Democratic pollster and focus group leader for three decades, was working for former vice president Walter F. Mondale, running that year for the Democratic presidential nomination against Sen. Gary Hart.
Hart thumped Mondale in the New Hampshire primary, producing "a tsunami that swept over the Mondale campaign," Peter Hart remembers. "Gary Hart appeared on the cover of all three newsweeklies. Everything was Hart." He was sent to Georgia, site of the next, suddenly crucial, primary to test a commercial attacking Hart before a focus group.
"I tested this negative ad and everybody in the focus group booed. I spent the whole session hearing how Hart was new and young and marvelous and Mondale was everything else. About 80 minutes into the session I realized I had nothing" to help Mondale.
"So I turned to them and said, 'Let me give you a situation. Imagine the country is in a terrible recession, unemployment is rising, it's very bad. Who do you want as president?' All 12 people wanted Hart. 'He's young, vibrant, he'll get the country moving again.' Mondale? 'Old, stale, tired, part of the old way of doing things . . .' Then I said, 'Imagine the country in an international crisis -- not a nuclear war but a serious crisis, when the red phone is being used. Who would you want as president? Twelve hands went up for Mondale. 'He's tested, he's stable, he's mature, he's seasoned, well versed, et cetera.' And Hart? 'Rash, new, untested . . .' "
Hart reported these reactions to the Mondale campaign, which quickly produced a new television commercial featuring a red telephone with a flashing orange light. A narrator intoned:
"The most awesome, powerful responsibility in the world lies in the hand that picks up this phone. The idea of an unsure, unsteady, untested hand is something to really think about. This is the issue of our times. On March 20, vote as if the future of the world is at stake. Mondale. This president will know what he's doing. And that's the difference between Gary Hart and Walter Mondale."
Mondale won in Georgia, and kept this ad on the air in all the states that later held primaries. "The Hart people never had an answer to it," Peter Hart recalls.
The Georgia focus group was an example of this art form at its most useful. Its fruits are not always so easy to pluck, and it is easy to misinterpret a group's comments, or be baffled by them. A bad leader can ruin a focus group. So can one or more ornery participants who try to dominate the proceedings. Often it is difficult to understand what is really important in a focus group discussion, and what is just noise.
This year, Peter Hart is using focus groups to try to understand the presidential campaign as it unfolds. He has conducted five already and plans five more, all for the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. The latest was held Tuesday night in York, Pa., and it will be broadcast at 8 tonight on C-SPAN.
There was no red-telephone moment on Tuesday night, but there was plenty of emotion. Hart conducted the focus group at a market research firm, in a room surrounded by see-through mirrors. Several reporters watched through the glass.
The 12 participants (who were paid $100 each for their time) comprised six Democrats, two independents who leaned Democratic, two Republicans and two pure independents. None of the 12 supported Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain in the Pennsylvania primary on April 22; seven voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton. One of Hart's principal interests was to learn how those Clinton supporters felt about Obama.
But before he could get to that question he tapped into strong feelings about the state of the country and the Bush administration. No one in the group had anything good to say about the state of the nation. Only three had anything kind to say about President Bush.
Several participants made clear their own difficult circumstances. Michelle Bell, 38, an employee of Verizon and single mother of two, complained that she got no help from anyone. "Even though I do work full time, trying to take care of the house, pay the mortgage, I have no money. I live paycheck to paycheck. But I still can't get reduced lunch for my kids at school. I think it's a bit ridiculous when there's people out there that don't work, and they're getting welfare and food stamps, and what am I getting? Nothing." A Democrat, she voted for Bush in 2004 and was leaning toward Obama.
Hart was impressed by the comments of two other women who voted for Bush in 2004 but seemed open to voting for Obama in November, a 32-year-old Republican homemaker and churchgoer named Jannell Mader, and Sheryl Randoll, an independent, 51-year-old pharmaceutical saleswoman with a history of voting for Republicans.
"I have two sons in college and one who's a senior in high school," said Randoll. "I can plod along and make it on my own, but I really don't see it for them. I mean, if college is costing $50,000 a year and all of the things that go along with that, I don't see them being even as successful as I was, and I'm not even as successful as my father was. . . . I'm a single mom taking care of three kids. . . . I'm thinking we do need change. I'm not certain that either one of the candidates is going to bring the changes that we need, but we certainly need change to make it better for them."
"I am registered as a Republican and considered myself as a Republican up until this president," said Mader, who announced at one point that she admired Mike Huckabee. "Now I'm like, I don't know what I am. . . . I think that for most of my life my decisions have been made based on morals and family values and that whole belief system that I've had instilled in me since birth. And now all of a sudden our country is like turned upside down with all these economic issues that I haven't encountered in my lifetime and it's really making me second-guess, you know, voting for those ideals instead of voting for other issues that need to be dealt with."
"If I were John McCain," Hart said on the morning after the focus group, "I'd be exceptionally nervous" after hearing these women's comments. "Those two people are terrible news for McCain.
"He's already looking at a deficit of 10 or 12 points in party ID," Hart said, referring to the gap between voters who identify themselves as Democrats or leaning toward Democrats and Republicans in this year's opinion polls. If McCain doesn't have traditional Republican voters like Mader and Randoll "locked up in early June -- that is exceptionally important."
Hart saw another reason for McCain to be anxious -- five of the seven Democrats who voted for Clinton in the primary were already comfortable with Obama as their candidate. Hart had deliberately excluded people who had voted for Obama to make it easier for the Clinton supporters to speak their minds. In states like Pennsylvania, McCain must attract many non-Republican votes to win, and his campaign has already targeted Democrats who supported Clinton.
But if Hart is right that these signs were discouraging for McCain, the York focus group also showed how fluid the presidential race remains, and "just how far from the finish line we are," in Hart's words. The discussion, which lasted nearly 140 minutes, demonstrated again and again how little the paricipants felt they knew about Obama or McCain. "I don't know enough" was the substance of many answers to Hart's queries.
In an effort to plumb their emotional reactions to both men, Hart fired a series of off-the-wall questions at the group: Imagine you are lost in a forest. Would you want Obama or McCain to help get you out? What kind of neighbor would McCain or Obama be? With which man would you choose to share an hour-long commute to work? Whom would you select to carry the American flag for the U.S. athletes marching in the opening ceremony of the Olympics?
Obama had fewer supporters than McCain on all of these questions, though only four of 12 said they leaned toward voting for McCain. This, said Hart, was evidence of the work Obama has to do to reassure voters that it would be safe and ultimately rewarding to vote for him. McCain is the relatively well-known quantity in the race, Obama still the newcomer. But Hart also noted how hard it was for members of the group to identify ways that McCain could win their votes in November.
Only one member of the group had an outspoken answer to that question. Charles Fasano, a 56-year-old undertaker, identified himself as "a Democrat . . . thinking more about McCain, just because I don't trust Osama -- I mean Obama. It's only one letter difference. His middle name's Hussein. He comes from a Muslim family. It's not right, I can't see it. I just fear for America if he comes in." Later in the discussion Fasano predicted race riots in America if Obama is elected. These were classic examples of sentiments that no poll would ever uncover, but came bubbling up freely in this focus group.
No one agreed with Fasano, nor did anyone point out that Obama barely knew his Muslim father or that side of his family. But several said they feared for Obama's safety. "The real world doesn't do well with change," said Terry Mathison, 49, an independent who voted Republican in 2004. "I think somebody would be out for him. I would fear for his life."
Thanks to new technology, says Vincent Breglio, a longtime Republican pollster and focus group leader, the future of this art form is bright. Breglio said he demonstrated this late last year in Iowa, in a new kind of computer-assisted and oversize focus group that he used on behalf of Mitt Romney.
Breglio assembled 25 people and put them all in front of laptop computers connected in a network. Instead of oral questions like Peter Hart's, he sent members of the group questions as e-mail, and the participants typed out their answers.
"The data was just much richer," Breglio said. "The meeker, less assertive people can participate without being identified. . . . We could ask fairly sensitive questions, like religious affiliations and beliefs and how they will influence votes, things that are very important but often difficult to tease out." And everyone in the group could answer every question, which isn't possible in the traditional focus group. The result, Breglio said, was the most productive, in-depth interviews he'd ever seen a focus group produce.