- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2000

Enough already. That's what many of the professional pundits and the media elite are saying about the explosion of focus groups in election 2000 political coverage. Enough with the real people. Enough with the swing voters. Enough with all the attention toward the so-called "undecided."

I say let's hear and see even more. Thanks to competition among cable news outlets and the incredible appeal of the English language (as spoken by average Americans), we are witnessing the true democratization of media coverage. For the first time, the media are lavishing more attention on the voters themselves than on the talking heads putting people before pundits and it's about time.

OK, it was a bit much when NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and MSNBC all hosted focus groups of some kind following the final presidential debate. But drowning in real people is far more enlightening than drowning in numbers or being subjected to the networks' political pundits. National news organizations are polling on a daily basis, and while the media has all the numbers they can possibly crunch, most surveys and their accompanying analysis are seriously lacking in meaningful insight. Too many media polls report what voters think but too few explain how voters really feel and why.

Traditional polling is still the best way to measure attitudes and opinions on a global scale, but it is too rigid and statistical to explain the nuances of politics and political communication. Americans don't want to respond "yes" or "no" to alternatives that are either unacceptable or require clarification. In today's post-partisan politics, there are too many shades of gray, too many "yes, but what I really think is …" attitudes, too many voter priorities that cannot be prioritized and explained over the phone. If understanding "why" is an objective, as it should be, traditional telephone polling is simply not enough.

Enter focus groups.

A well-run focus group is a laboratory for social interaction. Like telephone polling, focus groups begin by gauging respondent awareness and superficial opinions and attitudes. But unlike polling, the superficiality is then stripped away, revealing deeper motivations and thoughts that telephone polling cannot provide. The interaction with a professional moderator and the participants helps encourage more honest and less "politically correct" responses that measure intensity of opinion as well as individual motivation.

Being a "good listener" is not enough to moderate a focus group properly. All too often, media moderators put pressure on respondents to give information that they just do not have. The fact is, many voters are ill-informed not just about the intricate details of public policy but even the political leaders whose names are in the newspapers on a daily basis. They have more important priorities in their lives. They are not paid to follow politics. They are paid to build, construct, farm, create to actually make this country work. And though they may be ill-informed, they still have opinions and a vote that counts.

The idea of professional insiders, of which I am admittedly one, dismissing the opinions of average Americans is the worst example of elitism. That those whose lives revolve around following every subtle nuance of politics would criticize those who don't, is why so Americans despise pundits, the media, and even politicians. I would love to see one of "us" try to weld a frame into the right shape with a blowtorch. I would love to see one of "us" strip wood down to paper. I would love to see one of "us" work a cash register without pause for hours on end. I would love to see one of "us" do anything besides type on a laptop or yap on a cell phone.

Not following politics on a daily basis does not make these real Americans "morons," as one well-known, politically connected liberal Hollywood actor said to me last week, or "idiots," as a leading conservative columnist labeled them. Such condescending comments are exactly why we need this injection of real life into the political discourse.

It is true that the people in focus groups cannot pick up the phone and call the president. None of them has slept in the Lincoln Bedroom, and none of them likely ever will. But every single person in a focus group has something far more valuable.

Each has a vote.

That is what is so wonderful about America. You don't need to be on the payroll of a major newspaper to decide who will represent you. You don't need to appear on television to enter the polling booth. In America, no matter your education level, tax bracket or social calendar, you still have one vote. And every one of those so-called morons that I listen to in my focus groups has just as much pull in our electoral college as the elitists who have branded voters "idiots."

While they may not know the WTO from the OMB, these are real people, with real opinions and real votes. Take what happened in my focus groups for MSNBC at the party conventions, for example. Despite lukewarm reaction to the GOP convention by most of the on-air pundits, the convention address by George Bush was quite well-received by the 36 swing voters in the MSNBC session. Seven of the 36 actually switched allegiances from Mr. Gore to Mr. Bush, and their reaction was reflected in the pubic opinion surge days later. At the Democratic convention, seven Bush supporters of the 36 switched to Mr. Gore because of his performance (and the kiss heard round the world), despite the criticism from the professional prognosticators. Sure enough, Mr. Gore surged in all post-convention surveys. Two projections. Two successes. A coincidence? Not likely.

The truth is, the American people have an innate common sense. And more often than my colleagues care to admit, the real people have a better track record predicting public opinion than those who are paid to do so.

Frank Luntz has been conducting focus groups for MSNBC.

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