If setting the public’s expectations about election outcomes is a meaningful exercise, then the public opinion profession needs to take stock and be more precise the next time.
The insights gleaned from open-ended exchanges are far different — and sometimes far more useful — than those generated from closed-ended questions in surveys. When used in tandem, these methodologies provide insights that none alone can offer.
I know this firsthand. For the past 21 months, I’ve been living a split-screen existence in anticipation of the election, conducting my own focus groups in swing states while religiously following the polls.
Throughout those focus groups, with rare exception, we invariably found approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of respondents siding with President Trump in a hypothetical matchup with former President Barack Obama, or in the eventual matchup with former Vice President Biden.
The fact that Biden was not winning back a higher proportion of one-time Obama voters always struck me as noteworthy. By their comments, those supporting Trump were dug-in and not likely to flip to Biden.
For reference, focus groups are early detection systems of shifting public opinion. Before something important appears in polling, it often surfaces first in focus group conversations.
This led me to feel confident writing the following to clients last month:
“Based upon what I’m hearing, about three-quarters of these swing voters will stick with the President. It’s TBD whether having Biden win back that other one-quarter means he will secure enough votes to win the election. But even if Trump loses (which the polling suggests will happen), it does not mean Trumpism — and the economic nationalism that propelled him — is dead. America ignores at its peril the people I’m talking to monthly — the working people of the upper Midwest.”
These voters told me they want America finally to be put first; they oppose immigration and trade policies that they say give benefits to foreigners at their expense. They fear socialism. And they want a non-politician who relentlessly fights back, after witnessing too many officeholders fold in the face of special interests.
These voters may sound like typical Fox News watchers, but the overwhelming majority are not. Instead, many are people who get their news disproportionately from local television, regional websites and Facebook. Compared to the kinds of people who seek out news from national cable channels, many swing voters reside in a national politics desert.
My admonition remains: Pay a lot of attention to those voters who don’t pay much attention at all. Also pay a lot of attention to what they see on social media, especially Facebook and YouTube. They are issuing an important warning about America’s future.