The Trouble with Polls and Focus Groups

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There is a long-standing Hollywood fantasy about how to succeed in American politics. From Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Bulworth, the story is the same: the hero is liberated when he breaks free from political convention and starts speaking from the heart. In the old days, Mr. Smith fought political bosses. Nowadays the bosses are political consultants. Senator Bulworth—in Warren Beatty's 1998 film—is liberated after deciding to commit suicide while watching his re-election ads.

Reality, unfortunately, is stingy with outspoken political heroes. Mavericks tend to lose, even compelling ones like John McCain. There is a reason for that: inconvenient truths are inconvenient to someone. And passion can be scary. McCain's assault on Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell cost him dearly in the 2000 campaign. Howard Dean's anger was causing him to lose altitude long before he screamed. Which is why politicians have concocted an entire industry—the polling and consulting wizardocracy—devoted to telling them what not to say. From Merlin to Rove, the most powerful adviser has been the one who says, "My crystal ball says, Don't go there" or "If you say that, Your Majesty, the Goths won't be happy."

The modern tricks of the wizardocracy—polls and focus groups—are not inherently malevolent. They are only as banal as the people who read them. Bill Clinton was a master: it was a focus group that taught him that it was better to "invest" in education than to "spend" on it. Clinton also knew when to ignore the polls, as he did on the Mexican bailout. Most pols aren't so clever, though. This year John Kerry and George W. Bush are relying on ancient market-tested formulations like (in Kerry's case) "Health care is a right, not a privilege" and (in Bush's case) "You know how to spend your money better than the government does." Which leads me to wonder if the golden age of campaign wizardry is coming to a close. The tools of the trade seem shopworn this year.

Take polling, please. The vast majority of Americans—as many as 90%, pollsters have told me privately—refuse to answer questions when the wizard calls (although the number is marginally better this hot election year). People who use cell phones exclusively, mostly younger voters, are unreachable. The wizards say they can correct for these things, by "weighting" their polls—that is, giving disproportionate weight to members of underrepresented groups like young people. But surely that makes polling less scientific and more speculative. It means polls should be trusted only to verify broad shifts—Bush moved ahead in the presidential race after the Republican Convention—rather than specific point spreads. There are other problems. Volatile times make for less accurate polling. The wizards base their model electorates, inevitably, on who voted last time. Earth-shattering events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq could yield a substantially different electorate in 2004, but no one knows whether that means, for instance, that there will be a surge of military-draft-fearing 18-to-24-year-olds coming out to vote this year. The subject of Iraq, in itself, has to be hard to poll; people are torn among their loyalty to the troops, their lack of knowledge about a previously obscure part of the world and the nagging sense that something has gone quite wrong. Mixed feelings are difficult to quantify.

I went to Kansas City, Mo., last week to watch Peter Hart conduct a focus group of more or less undecided voters. Focus groups are a powerful political aphrodisiac: civilians tell the wizards how to rub them the right way. But they are also an insidious reversal of the political process, turning followers into leaders. Watching Hart, a pioneer and master of the idiom, trying to elicit responses from a surly group of citizens, I began to wonder whether focus groups have outlived their usefulness. The group was almost entirely predictable. They said Bush was a regular guy and Kerry seemed aloof. They said they wanted more specifics from the candidates and more high-minded coverage from the media, but the information they possessed seemed to come mostly from negative ads. It was synthetic conversation—the kind of faux intimacy common to reality-TV shows—and yet I sensed some frustration among the participants. They were looking for a quality in the candidates they couldn't quite describe.

Finally, Hart asked what advice they would whisper in the next President's ear. "My opinion doesn't have to count," said John Kenny, a Bush voter. It took a second before I realized that Kenny was delivering a revolutionary message, undermining the very purpose of the focus group: Don't listen to me! The next President, he said, has to "stand up on his own and do what he thinks is right."

Kenny was pleading for leadership. It was the missing piece, the source of the frustration I had sensed, indescribable by the civilians because true leadership means taking the country to a new place and describing the journey in words that are new and fresh, specific and true. The folks in Kansas City were looking for Mr. Smith.