The Art and Science of Listening to Voters

Dr. Louis Perron
blog post louis

I’m not sure if you have noticed that polls in the U.S. have been constantly wrong. They were wrong in 2016 when Donald Trump got elected. After that, pollsters said that they have learned their lessons, only to be wrong again in 2018, 2020 and, 2022.

In addition to statistics and algorithms, sound public opinion research has a lot to do with the art and science of listening to voters. Last year alone, I have conducted about a hundred focus group discussions in Switzerland and various other countries as basis for political campaigns. It’s a very powerful and much underestimated tool – not only for the private sector, but also for politics.

Both in academia and in the real world, 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. Simply put, the focus groups explain the “why” behind the survey numbers.

A focus group usually consists of about eight respondents. They are not just a bunch of friends gathered together, but a carefully defined and recruited target group. Depending on the situation, you could choose to analyze undecided voters, voters who lean softly towards your candidate or any specific socio-economic group you are interested in. I once had a client with a stunning 90% approval rating. Going for the gold, he wanted to do a focus group with respondents from the 10% who disapproved of his job. That’s rather rare.

While a very effective tool, a series of details are important to make sure accurate data is obtained. Respondents chosen must feel comfortable enough to talk and must walk away from it without knowing which side the discussion was for. During the actual discussion, respondents sit together in a neutral room and are interviewed for about two hours. For this, we use a semi-structured discussion guide.

Based on focus group data, I have told clients what projects to focus on and even how to name them, how to make up for mistakes during a situation of 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’ve even used it to explore how to change the physical appearance or behavior of the top candidate. In addition, there have been occasions during the past fifteen years that I have told clients, based on data, not to run (those who followed my advice were forever grateful).

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