Both in academia and in the real world of electoral politics, there is often a rather silly debate between proponents of quantitative (surveys, polls) and qualitative (focus group discussions, in-depth interviews) public opinion research. In my experience, the two mutually complement each other and are partners. It is however important not to analyze one through the lens of the other as they produce a different kind of data. Simply put, the focus groups explain the “why” behind the numbers of a survey. At the risk of sounding like a therapist, focus groups are also a great tool to listen to, and to feel the electorate.
Focus group participants are carefully selected and are being interviewed for about two hours using a semi-structured discussion guide. Based on focus groups, I have told clients what legislation to focus on and even how to name it, how to make up for mistakes during a crisis, and how to take advantage of the competition’s weaknesses. Focus groups have revealed what campaign tools to use, what ads to air and how to tweak them to make them more effective. I average well over 50 focus groups a year and I think it’s a very powerful tool. I’ve even used it to explore how to change the physical appearance or behavior of the top candidate. And yes, there have been occasions during the past ten years that I have told clients, based on data, not to run. Those who followed my advice were forever grateful.