The hat works.

Photographer: Michael Stewart/GC Images

Trump Supporters, Asked About Trump, Like Trump

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Yes, it's August, and there's little political news to report on, but can we at least avoid hyping the results of voter focus groups

Look at what Time magazine has just done with consultant Frank Luntz's gathering of a bunch of Donald Trump supporters. Luntz was shocked -- shocked! -- to find that they continued to support Trump even after he showed them clips of the real-estate billionaire. Granted, it did produce one of the greatest voter quotes ever:

"We know his goal is to make America great again," a woman said. "It's on his hat."

Well, there you go.

We could presumably assemble a roomful of George Pataki or Lincoln Chafee supporters (yes, it would take some work), and they would probably like Pataki or Chafee even if we gave them good reasons to find another candidate. Simply putting people together who share the same enthusiasms might be enough to increase their resistance to negative information.

Real campaigns don't work like that. Right now, all most people are hearing about is Trump. Eventually, this will change. For the hat lady, someone else may catch her fancy with an equally catchy slogan. Others may discover that Trump isn't the only candidate who shares their views on the issues. And those enamored of Trump's personal style will discover that Marco Rubio or Scott Walker or Ben Carson or whoever also has a compelling personal style. Focus groups can't forecast any of that.

They also can't predict when some participants will tire of Trump's bombast. We know from experience that voter enthusiasm doesn't always last.

Focus groups are not surveys. They don't say anything about the nation at large, or even some subset of it. They can't tell us what X category thinks; at best, they tell us what a bunch of people, selected by particular characteristics, gathered in one room think.

Sure, it can be fascinating to hear how voters talk about politics and candidates. While polling can tell us how large groups would answer a particular question, in-depth conversations can reveal nuance that even long-form surveys can't get to. Focus groups have the advantage of gleaning a whole bunch of nuance at once. For campaigns, this can be potentially useful. They need to use language that resonates with voters, and listening to how people talk can help.

But focus groups are also a methodological mess. The moderator brings his or her biases into the room. So do all of the members of the group. This means each participant is getting all sorts of prompts, which provoke all sorts of responses -- which may or may not be what the participants "really" think in any sense. Therefore, toss out all claims derived purely from what people say in focus groups -- and be very cautious about taking anything from them at face value.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net