American pollster Frank Luntz did his second focus-group style exercise for RTE's Week in Politics last night. (follow the link to the show here)
Sure, RTE have thrown a lot of money at it. They brought in their top current affairs lighting cameraman Cecrid Culleton to shoot it in a cool, grainy style, with a constantly moving camera.
But there was way too much going on. Frank Luntz's own introductions and commentaries competed with those of Sean O'Rourke. Luntz tried to work through too many topics (from election-clinching issues to Fine Gael's poster to Brian Cowen's status as putative heir to Bertie Ahern). It gave too little time to give us a chance to really look at Luntz's techniques, or to evaluate them. In addition, the added layer of the three home-grown pundits gave us the unique television phenomenon of having what was already analysed analysed.
Let's fill in a little of the back story here. Political parties have been using focus groups for years as means of ascertaining and identifying the wants, the desires, the gaps, the problems, all the crosses that the long suffering public bear.
So political parties use them as a kind of weather vane. Well, some do, and others learn to rely on them more than their own human and political instincts.
If you read the separate books of two Observer journalists on Tony Blair's New Labour - Andrew Rawnsley's sympathetic 'Servant of the People' and Nick Cohen's scathing 'Pretty Straight Guys' you will get a fair idea how influential focus groups can be. Labour under Blair not only listened to them. Their policies were fashioned, led and tailored by what focus groups were telling them. Focus groups thus inspired policies. Conversely policies were culled because focus groups didn't like them. There's something perverse about a political party being led by the nose on policies. Giving the people want they want, as the legendary American TV news producer Frank Reuben said, is a dope peddler's argument.
And having watched last night's programme, you realised that it wasn't from the wind that Enda Kenny and Michael McDowell got their recent inspirations to big it up on immigration.
There were a couple of aspects to the whole shebang that I found unconvincing. The first is the assumption that political discourse in Ireland doesn't exist unless it's on televison. Terry Prone's otherwise excellent column in this morning's Irish Examiner reinforces this assumption that the election will be won or lost on TV. Of course, television is vital. But there is radio. There are newspapers (people will read and even be influenced by what Terry Prone writes, believe it or not!). And there is the internet, blogs, youtube, bebo etc. Granted, the internet is not the real deal yet as far as Irish electoral poltics are concerned. But it's already a party of the currency in the US - both Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama launched their respective campaigns not on TV and not in the press but on their own web-sites. And it will be catching them bang-to-rights in 2012.
People cricially engage as well as emotionally engage. I do do take Terry Prone's point that TV and radio happen in real time, that there's no space for explaining fancy words or abstract concepts.
And that brings me to the second point. The momentary experience. The group was asked to respond to one - or two at the most - sequence(s) featuring polticians. It was a critique of one television performance, expanded into an unsatisfactory show of hands (based on that clip alone) on the worth and wherewithal of that politician.
I'm sorry, but you don't need a dialometer to telly you that Brian Cowen will bore the backside of you when he starts with Department of Finance Bullshit Bingo (and delivers it with all the enthusiasm of a kid who's been given ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys in confession). And you know that Brendan Howlin is never going to stoke up the masses using pretentious words like interdict.
But the problem, as far as this exercise is concerned, is that both have stood and delivered on many other occasions, with punch and pungency. It's like writing off Dublin's All Ireland chances on the basis of their defeat by Tyrone in Croke Park at the weekend. And why for that matter use a short Dan Boyle sound-byte on the environmental aspects of the Budget delivered on the plinth of Leinster House? Why hone in on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin on health, rather than focusing on the essense of the Sinn Féin message, its stance on the national question? Granted, you have to select what clips you have. Indeed, you have to cut your cloth to suit your measure. But people will ultimately assess parties and personalities in a more complex fashion.
The third niggling feeling I have about focus groups (in general)is this. A disparate group of people are brought together in an artificial setting. Unlike a jury, they never have the time to settle down and get over that initial hump of discomfort and reserve. And often (and as far as I know you could see it here too) the debate is dominated by a couple of individuals. Others, either through reserve or politeness, will tend to row in and agree there and then. But at home later, while standing over the kitchen sink or staring into the fire, they may come to a radically different opinion on an issue or personality. I also think that also explains some of the inbuilt flaws of opinion polls.
Having said all that, it was still an absorbing exercise (as was the first). What Luntz has done is revealed the mysteries of the art to the public, using his own dial technology to make the preferences and prejudices of the groups measurable (and interesting).
Like a self-catalysing enzyme, Luntz himself becomes a player in the process. And with RTE throwing such resources and energy into the programme, it may itself have a measurable influence with the political parties and with voters.
But hold your horses! What Luntz is doing is interesting, eye-opening, important... but ultimately only indicative of trends, of perception, of issues.
As for the latter, there were a couple of bombshells. The first was that not one person in the groupll was a victim of crime (and most said they knew no friend or relatives who were victims). Yet, crime was identified as a huge issue. Why was this? Well, if you look back to the 2002 or 1997 or 1992 or 1989 or 1987 elections, what will you find? The self-same fears and concerns over crime, exactly the same ramping-up of near hysteria by the media (sadly, mostly newspapers) and by politicians. Of course, crime rates are rising and Ireland is a more violent society than it was in the halcyon days of the 1950s. But the perception of fear and or crisis has been cyncially manipulated and exaggerated by politicians and the media.
I must say I was very surprised at the sentiments expressed by some of the group on immigrants. My own opinion, for what it's worth, is that people are instinctively conservative about new arrivals, have an innate suspicion of the unfamiliar. But it's not the job of politicians to pander to those fears or prey on them. And while Enda Kenny protests that he was being brave in his recent 'Celtic and Christian' comments, this suggests that he was being populist.
There was a very definite undercurrent from people that they are tired of the government, that they will begrudge giving FF and the PDs another five years in power. But there was an equal perception that the oppostion isn't up to all that much.
It was also surprising to see how little credit was given to the Government for the strong performance of the economy over the past ten years. I believe that when it comes to make-your-mind up time, people will think primarily about jobs, about future security, about which alternative will best guarantee the continuation of the good times. It's the economy stupid. It always is the economy stupid.
And just as an afterword on the changing nature of politics and of political campaigns, here is a video from the amazing slate.com showing how influential YouTube has become in shaping political opinion.