Hearts, Not Minds
Polls Tell Them What Voters Think, But Moderators Say the Focus Group Reveals How Emotion Trumps Analysis
Monday, June 30, 2008; Page C01
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.