How Focus Groups Reshaped the 1988 Presidential Campaign

Monday, June 30, 2008

Polls rarely produce specific consequences in a political campaign, but focus groups often do. In one case, two focus groups shaped an entire presidential campaign.

That was in 1988, when Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes (now president of Fox News) were in charge of George H.W. Bush's run for the White House. That May, they convened back-to-back focus groups in Paramus, N.J. Each consisted of 15 voters who favored or leaned toward Michael Dukakis, then the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Ailes and Atwater had prepared versions of Dukakis's past statements and positions on prison furloughs, the Pledge of Allegiance, gun control and other issues they hoped to exploit in the fall. According to Paul Taylor's book on the '88 race, "See How They Run," Dukakis's support plummeted in both groups after the material was read to them by the focus-group leader.

"I realized right then and there that the sky was the limit on Dukakis's negatives," Atwater told Taylor. "I knew we had the wherewithal to win." And they did, with the most negative campaign for president in modern times. Bush concentrated that fall on all the issues raised in those two focus groups.

John Russonello, a partner in the consulting firm Belden, Russonello & Stewart, recalls a less dramatic example from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. Russonello used a focus group of Latino voters in Albuquerque, N.M., to test a Spanish-language commercial for Clinton. He realized at once that the group hated the ads. Why? The participants told him the commercial was obviously made in Los Angeles and featured a Mexican American announcer whose Spanish and accent sounded foreign in Albuquerque. The commercial was redone for New Mexican viewers.

Russonello recounts another focus group experience in California in 2005, when a supremely confident and popular Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed ballot initiatives that would allow him to cut spending on education and make it more difficult for schoolteachers to win tenure. Hired by the California Teachers Association, Russonello convened focus groups to test reactions to these proposals. A person in one focus group commented that Schwarzenegger had "broken his promise" -- made during his campaign for governor -- to improve schools. That became the theme of a well-financed campaign against the ballot initiatives. Schwarzenegger's proposals lost badly and his approval rating fell from the 70s to the 30s.

"You could see the emotion in the room when people said he broke his promise," Russonello said. "That's what you look for in focus groups that you can't get from a survey."

-- Robert G. Kaiser

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