Ask market researchers about the success of Paul E. Tsongas and Patrick J. Buchanan in New Hampshire, and these believers in the power of polling would be hard-pressed to come up with an explanation. After all, Tsongas bested his Democratic rivals, and Buchanan ran a strong second to President Bush--even though both candidates relied very little on research.
Tsongas kicked off the final week of the primary with a television commercial explaining why he opposes a tax cut for the middle class. Yet the former Massachusetts senator's own polls and focus groups show that most middle-class voters favor a tax break. "He's the antithesis of a research-driven candidate," says Michael Shea, a media consultant to the Tsongas campaign.
Buchanan, meanwhile, ran a commercial that rapped Bush for not pressing Congress harder to pass the White House's proposed $500 increase in the income tax exemption for children. Which Beltway research maven put him on to this issue? His sister and campaign adviser, Angela, who saw it in a Washington Post article. As for Frank I. Luntz, the 29-year-old college professor who takes polls for Buchanan, he briefed the renegade conservative for only 15 minutes a day in the final week.
HEAVY INVESTMENT. This disregard for research is in stunning contrast to the reverence shown by other top candidates. The Bush campaign is run by a trained researcher, Robert M. Teeter. It draws on the deep resources of the Republican Party: The GOP conducted three large-scale focus groups on the evening of the President's State of the Union speech to test reaction to his message. And Gov. Bill Clinton actually observed several of the daily voter focus groups his campaign sponsored across New Hampshire.
The dramatic results in that state underline an unforeseen truth about the 1992 election: The sophisticated market research that helped propel Reagan in 1984 and Bush in 1988 won't be enough to win the White House this time around. "What makes 1992 different is that the economy is an overriding issue," says Larry J. Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia and the author of a book on political consulting. Research works best in politics when the race is close and issues are muddier, argues Sabato. This year, voters' fixation on the economy has led them to demand concrete proposals and made them less tolerant of image-driven campaigns. Nor does research protect against outside calamities, such as the rumors dogging Clinton.
That's bad news for both parties, which have invested heavily to plumb the psyches of voters. But it's a particularly cruel twist for the Democrats: The party has made it a top priority to close what it sees as a long-standing research gap with the Republicans. "We need new tools," says Paul Tully, political director of the Democratic National Committee. As recently as the 1984 Mondale campaign, he says, Democrats believed that market research efforts took second place to stitching together different interest groups, such as labor and Southern voters. In 1992, the DNC will spend several hundred thousand dollars on research for the Presidential race alone.
DIAL FOR PAIN. The Democrats have a way to go to close the research gap. The GOP is historically better funded, and its long-time connection to Madison Avenue has given the party access to some of the ad industry's savviest market researchers. Republican research helped produce Reagan's "Morning in America" ads in 1984. Exceptionally broad surveys by GOP pollster Richard B. Wirthlin revealed that Americans were feeling better about themselves than they had in decades. "We wouldn't have had the same confidence" about the spots' dewy-eyed emotionalism without the research, says Philip B. Dusenberry, vice-chairman of BBDO Worldwide Inc. and a member of Reagan's advertising team.
Now, the Democrats are nurturing their own Wirthlins. The DNC hired pollster Mark Mellman to stage a large focus group on Jan. 28 to gauge reaction to President Bush's State of the Union Address. The members were each given a handheld instrument, which they dialed up or down to reflect their response to what the President was saying. Tully says the results suggest that voters feel the President doesn't really understand the economic pain many Americans are experiencing.
Another research pioneer for the Democrats is Stanley Greenberg, a strategist who made exhaustive use of focus groups for a seminal 1985 study on why working-class voters in Michigan were abandoning the Democratic Party for Reagan. Greenberg signed on early with Clinton, who took the need for research more to heart than any other Democratic contender. Based on voter surveys he did in New Hampshire before Christmas, Greenberg advised Clinton to concentrate on the economy in his advertising. One commercial showed Clinton discussing his proposals and featured a toll-free number viewers could call for details. After this spot started airing in early January, Clinton surged from 20% to 33% in the polls.
NO-IMAGE ALLURE. Then Clinton ran into trouble over allegations about extramarital affairs and his draft deferment. Greenberg's research machine went into overdrive: After conducting daily focus groups across the state, Clinton's media advisers produced a 60-second biographical spot emphasizing his hardscrabble roots and self-made success.
But the tide of damaging publicity ultimately was too strong to turn back. "He could have the finest research microscope in the world," says Alex Castellanos, a media adviser to the Bush campaign, "but he had an elephant charging at him." Voters were also charmed by Tsongas' unrehearsed manner and focus on the issues: "Tsongas would have been a footnote in 1988," says Sabato. "But his lack of image actually reinforces his substance."
The same is true of Buchanan, who has spent only 3% of his campaign budget on market research, less than the 5% to 7% that is customary for a Presidential bid. Because the campaign didn't have the money to conduct focus groups, Luntz had 13 students from his class at the University of Pennsylvania travel with him in New Hampshire, and they served as a "floating focus group." Primitive, yes. But frustrated voters responded to Buchanan's blunt criticism of Bush's economic policies.
Now, as attention shifts to the big Southern primaries, Tsongas and Buchanan will have to translate their seat-of-the-pants success to a larger and more complicated political landscape. And they must assume that the economy will revive at least somewhat by the time of the general election. It's one thing to run on your gut in a state with barely 1 million people and a tiny media market. But Tsongas and Buchanan will need more than their instincts for the long march through Dixie.
CAMPAIGN 1992'S TOP RESEARCH MINDS GEORGE BUSH/Fred Steeper Longtime associate of Robert M. Teeter, GOP researcher and now Bush's campaign manager PATRICK BUCHANAN/Frank Luntz 29-year-old professor of American civilization; holds a doctorate in political science PAUL TSONGAS/Tubby Harrison Prominent pollster in Massachusetts politics; was poll taker for Michael Dukakis in 1988 BILL CLINTON/Stanley Greenberg Key Democratic strategist; taught at Yale; published a book on quantitative data gathering DATA: BW