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The Hart/Annenberg Focus Group

Topics: Barack Obama , Clinton , Focus Groups , Washington Post

If you ever wanted to see a real political focus group from beginning to end (as opposed to the reality TV version that we sometimes see on cable news networks following a candidate debate), thanks to C-SPAN and the Annenberg Public Policy Center, you have a chance. The focus group sponsored by Annenberg and conducted last week in York, Pennsylvania by Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart is available for viewing from the C-SPAN web site, along with Hart's media debriefing. (both links are available from C-SPAN's main page if the foregoing links do not work) And if you would like to watch from the comfort of your sofa, C-SPAN will re-air the entire group tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time.

The Hart/Annenberg focus group was also the subject of a must-read 2,200 word profile this morning by The Washington Post's Robert Kaiser. The success of this particular research tool, as Kaiser points out, "success depends on the skills of the person leading the discussion" and Hart is an especially skilled and experienced moderator. "A bad leader can ruin a focus group," Kaiser writes, "so can one or more ornery participants who try to dominate the proceedings." If you watch Hart carefully, you may notice he guides the group without imposing his own views, and as the evening progresses, gently coaxes the more dominant personalities in the room to hold their opinions for last.

Kaiser is also right that it is often "difficult to understand what is really important in a focus group discussion, and what is just noise." Here are some suggestions:

Be careful about counting. The issue is not so much size, as the difficulty of getting voters to participate in a process that requires in-person participation in a two-hour discussion group. Simply put, focus groups are not random samples, so we cannot use them to arrive at projective estimates of some larger population.

For example, Kaiser observes that "five of the seven Democrats who voted for Clinton in the primary were already comfortable with Obama as their candidate." That is an interesting finding, but it would be wrong to assume that 71% of Clinton supporters in York, Pennsylvania are now supporting Obama. The value is listening to those five individual explain their decision. We can understand the thought process and rationale of those five individuals, even if they do not produce "quantitative" estimates of a larger population of Clinton primary voters.

Who participated? The composition of the group frequently determines the impression that one gets from the discussion. One common philosophy among focus group researchers is to keep the composition as homogenous as possible. In the context of a political campaign, that usually means trying to limit participation to voters that are truly "persuadable" and still uncertain about their choice,

The York group included more "decided" voters than you might find in a typical focus group conducted by one of the campaigns, because in this case Hart and Annenberg wanted to understand how Obama is faring among Clinton's primary supporters. So they allowed primary voters to participate but screened out those who voted for Obama or initially preferred a Republican other than McCain. As a result, the group included quite a few primary voters who are now quite certain about their choice in November. I assume that their collective information level is also a bit higher than a group of truly persuadable voters (like the 23% of Americans described in this Gallup analysis) would be.

Pay attention to what isn't said. Much of Kaiser's piece, as well as the coverage from other journalists who watched from behind the glass, focused appropriately on what the participants said about Obama and McCain. However, I found this passage from Kaiser's article particularly telling:

The discussion, which lasted nearly 140 minutes, demonstrated again and again how little the participants felt they knew about Obama or McCain. "I don't know enough" was the substance of many answers to Hart's queries.

Consider it this way: Near the beginning of the group, Hart asked each participant to write down (and then describe) something that "has had an impact on me" in their thinking about either candidate in this election. Four mention McCain's recent proposal for off-shore oil drilling and three mention his "100 year" statement on Iraq. A few (5) more mention Michelle Obama's "proud of my country" remark and the controversial Reverend Wright (3). But think about the public policy issues that went unmentioned, either at that moment or later in the group. I heard, for example, not a word mentioned at any time about the candidate's positions on the FISA debate or Obama's decision to opt out of public funding for his campaign or a host of other policy issues that the candidates have spoken out on.

What gets said -- and what doesn't -- in this sort of open-ended discussion speaks volumes about the information that ultimately reaches voters in a campaign and what they do with it.

I am certain that our knowledgeable readers, some of whom are survey research professionals, can chime in with their own tips regarding focus groups and their interpretation. Our comments section is open as always. Have at it.

 

Comments
avatarMM:

interesting.

it seems like there is an element of racism from a few of them... especially the bald guy in the corner, older lady, and the used car salesman.

the economy seems to be the overiding issue

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Dailyfare:

When many in the group are obviously bigots. . .it's distressing to hear them referred to as everything but. Hart says they're not racists but there is a "racialized component" - what does that mean? Also distressing is that, after 17 months, so many were still very ill-informed about the candidates. Talk about anti-intellectualism! More distressing still is that many in the focus group don't seem to be interested in acquiring accurate information from sources like the candidates' websites or issues-oriented websites. If they can't be bothered to be informed, maybe they should just stay home in November.

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brambster:

Never saw this in the raw before.

Hard to draw many conclusions from a sample of 12 people in one area, but did note two things.

First, the 'Commander in Chief' argument, which the WP story referenced Hart's role in the Mondale red phone ad, is still strong at work even in a group that is slanted Democratic. People have a tendency to choose strong leaders over seemingly smart leaders. They mock being smart as being elitists. Maybe charisma counters this. Maybe having two elections strongly about strength as a leader has resulted in exhaustion from this. Clearly McCain has a huge advantage in this area. This could however be used against him if Democrats raised fears of an invasion of Iran, which the public is in no mood for and would signal going well beyond the best interests of the country to many that respond most favorably to the Commander in Chief argument.

I was also struck by the fact that those that cared the most about the well being of themselves and/or others seemed to be all in the Obama camp. This is probably what tilts this election from the trends of the last two. People now care much more about the economy, health care, energy, jobs, etc. than they care about how tough of a leader we have. Obama wins this group by default because he is as far from what created it as a candidate could be. I don't expect McCain to be able to change that perception, but he has to try.

The liberal partisan side of me says that Obama should attack McCain as being an extremist on foreign affairs, and continually remind the public that the economic state of affairs is largely the responsibility of the Republicans, but also the result of old blood in government as a whole. Obama needs not put out specific economic policies for side-by-side comparison. The Democrats huge gains in 2006 was largely done without a platform. They ran on not being the other guy, or just simply change, and it worked great. I prefer more substance from our politicians, but with 3 out of 12 people in a room believing Obama is a Muslin, I doubt the attention span sufficient to sell good policy to large numbers of swing voters.

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avatarMM:

I looked up where they held this.. York County, PA.

look it up..

its a county that voted for Santorum even in a landslide in 2006. the fact that half or a slight majority are leaning or voting Obama is a scary thing for republicans.. if Obama manages to split (or even lose slightly) a county like York, PA... then he will win PA and other swing states by a huge margin. mccain is gonna be on defense this election.

a poll is out from Kentucky this morning showing Boswell leading in a very red district.. I think even rural white voters such as this panel are sick and tired of republicans.

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