Finding a Balance with Focus Groups

By Stambaugh, Alex | Campaigns & Elections, March/April 2012 | Go to article overview

Finding a Balance with Focus Groups


Stambaugh, Alex, Campaigns & Elections


Getting the most out of focus groups is more art than science.

Trying to determine whether spending valuable time and resources on focus groups is the right move for your campaign? Consider this: one of the most memorable and influential ads in campaign history was the product of, you guessed it, a focus group.

Legendary pollster Peter Hart was conducting a focus group for former Vice President Walter Mondale during his 1984 Democratic primary battle with then-Sen. Gary Hart. The focus group participants were almost glowing in their description of the senator as "dynamic," "young," and a candidate who could represent a "new era" in Democratic politics. To those in the room, Mondale was "old" and his politics were "stale."

So Mondale's pollster tried another tack: Imagine the U.S. is suddenly thrust into an international crisis. Who would you rather have in the White House answering that call at 3 a.m.?

"There was a feeling that Hart just didn't have the experience to handle that," remembers Peter Hart. It was in response to that scenario that he saw the electoral potential in reinforcing to voters the idea that Mondale would be a steady and experienced hand at a time fraught with potential international peril.

"You just can't get that from a poll," explains Hart. "From those reactions, we came up with the red phone spot."

But despite the potential of the focus group, it has lost some of its cache in recent cycles, say many strategists. Candidates and campaigns are either using the tool too infrequently, or employing it incorrectly. When used in the right context, says Republican strategist Tyler Harber, focus groups can be the perfect tool to help craft and tweak a candidate's message.

"In the past 10 years, there has been a significant decline in the use of focus groups in campaigns," says Harber, a partner at The Prosper Group. And, he argues, too many campaigns that have committed the time and resources to focus group research have been far too focused on gaining quantitative information out of the process. The real premium should be placed on the qualitative side.

"There's an opportunity to get so much deeper with a focus group than you can with a survey," says Hart, who has conducted focus groups for several Democratic presidential hopefuls.

After surveying a few research gurus ourselves, we've compiled some tips to help make your focus groups worthwhile:

Timing Is Everything

When it comes to using focus groups, there is one thing most strategists agree on- the earlier, the better. Diving right into the focus group process "allows you to develop a campaign theme early on," says Randall Gutermuth, a pollster at American Viewpoint, who has conducted countless focus groups for clients. …

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