Tuesday, April 17, 2007

INSIDE POLITICS - Focus Group: but focus on what?

I wrote about Frank Luntz in February, the last time he did his exercise for RTE (see piece here).
Now he has done his third (and possibly last) pre-election programme for RTE and my reservations about the exercise have been reinforced (see full programme here).

Back in February I wrote:

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 politicians. 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 essence 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.

This third of the RTE Week In Politics Specials came from the West of Ireland. Again the production values were super-duper and the three expert panellists (Terry Prone, Ivan Yates and Noel Whelan) as well as presenter Sean O'Rourke were all entertaining and incisive in their interpretation of what they saw.

But you must separate Luntz the PhD academic hot shot from Luntz the showman. And what he has done here is made a circus out of a focus group, made it interesting for telly by using some clever technology and graphics, and installing himself as the ringmaster.

The ingredients are simple. In traditional focus groups, participants are asked to state their opinions on leaders, their promises and presentation after they have heard a clip or seen a picture. Luntz uses a little electronic gizmo, a kind of dialometer, that he gives to each member of the group.

So if they like what the person is saying, or the person themselves, they will turn the dial up towards 100. If they don't, they turn down (and with Michael McDowell, the poor man is in freefall the second his image appears before them). All this information is collected, number-crunched, portrayed on the screen as a running graph, making it look very authoritative and scientific.

But what does it tell you, ultimately? That people prefer listening to Pat Rabbitte than they do Trevor Sargent; or that Bertie easily outranks Enda with this group of people. It's like a restaurant review. Interesting to read, a bit of an indulgence, but will it determine the groceries you buy? Will the performance of a leader in one speech make any difference on polling day? I think not. For if it did, Trevor Sargent would definitely be a goner.

This reality is that a small group of people in one geographical location, strangers to each other, are gathered together. They tell us a few interesting things, about personalities and about issues.

In relation to issues, they views to be so disparate and so localised and personalised they could never be deemed authoritative as a trend.

And when you get to personalities, it's a little more complicated. Bertie does well when he's talking on the level, about real things, about tangibles. Kenny fares very poorly. He's criticised for not being specific enough, for being too vague. But then a few minutes later the focus group loves Gerry Adams even though he is vague to the point of vacant. And they like Pat Rabbitte because Pat Rabbitte is such a powerful speaker. And they don't warm to Trevor because a) he gave a piss poor speech and b) they don't like the hard message he's selling.

A lot of seems to come down to whom the group instinctively warm, whom they recognise. If people are as disengaged from politics as we hear, it's no surprise that Bertie (who has all the cards stacked in his favour) will score higher on the Richter scale of recognition, love and warmth. All this tells us a bit, but it's hardly representative of wider society.

The second ingredient is Luntz himself. As ringmaster, he is all front and showbiz, busier and more furious in movement than an orchestra conductor as he brings us through the gamut of trick ponies and verbal acrobatics.

And boy does he make a great welcome for himself. He reminded the focus group that Enda Kenny's 'Contract for a Better Ireland' was a steal from 'The Contract for America' that swept Newt Gingrich's republicans to power in the mid 90s. Luntz is a first-class self-publicist - he also claims credit for euphemising the terms oil drilling and global warming to fuel exploration and climate change. The influence of Luntz and his methods has been well here (and in the UK and in the US) hyped but I'm not convinced that they tell us anything that will cause fundamental shifts within political parties.

Yes, it makes for compelling viewing. But some of the stuff that emerges from this focus group as the really important things will have zero bearing when people go to cast their votes - like Michael McDowell being to blame for pubs in the West of Ireland closing down (!!!!! - by the way, he has absolutely nothing to do with it); too many immigrants coming in; and the broadside a couple of them took at An Taisce for allegedly being anti-development and anti-progress.

Surprisingly, this week, a very trenchant criticism of his method was made by one of the programme insiders, Terry Prone one of three panellists on these Week in Politics specials. In her Irish Examiner column yesterday, Prone made some very salient points, that brought a bit of reality back into the debate - hitherto, there has been uncritical enthusiasm for Luntz's intervention into the campaign. Here's a little of the argument she made:

Luntz passionately believes that gathering 30 people selected by Red C into a room and barracking them with questions about politicians will throw up infallible predictions about what’s going to happen in the election.

He’s wrong. What you get when you put those 30 people in a room is pub talk, made seem more significant than it is by inspired editing of four hours of material so the dross ends up on the cutting-room floor.

Tough stuff. You can read Terry Prone's full column in the Irish Examiner here.


Anonymous said...

If he is doing it for nothing, what's the problem? Look at the platform Fergus Finlay gets in your paper, the Examiner.

Dan Sullivan said...

Anonymous, you got the wrong post to comment on. I am guessing that it is Willie O'Dea you're referring to and not Luntz. Anyway, Finlay isn't a TD.

Dan Sullivan said...

A thing that struck me about the audience was the complete lack of basic information about some things. We had a publican (remember how publican aren't supposed to sell alcohol to people who are drunk, how could this guy judge?) telling us that he didn't know if 4 pints would put someone over the limit. And another lady in the front who thought that 2 pints the night before left you at risk from being over the limit the following morning. 2 pints of vodka maybe.

And An Taisce are to blame for no jobs coming into areas. No lads it is the lack of infrastructure and a place with a critical mass outside of Galway in the west to attract people to live in them. That and decades of thinking too short term.