Is He "Thrifty" Or Is He A "Miser"? Focus Groups Can Help Us Learn What Resonates

Framing the Future: "[U]nlike some other progressive framers, [The Center for Policy Alternatives, where I serve[d] as senior director for policy and communications] uses focus groups and polling to test its recommended language."

binoculars.JPGWWP: Why is it important to use focus groups and why do you think Democrats and other progressive organizations shy away from using them in developing their recommended language?

Bernie Horn:  There are many progressive communications experts who base their message framing advice on polls and focus groups—others do not. There are also times when we have to try to frame and no polling data is available on the specific question, so we must apply what we know from polling on similar issues and hope it works.

Maybe this is a good place to give a brief explanation of framing for readers who are less familiar with the subject. We all know words that are universally understood to contain “cues” inside them, passing judgment on the activity described. For the same behavior, a person could be called “thrifty” or “a miser.” The same person could be called “brave” or “foolhardy.” The words we use tip off the audience whether to feel positively or negatively about that person. Obviously, there are words where everyone gets the same “cue,” like freedom, responsibility, public safety, or clean water. Less obvious is the fact that there are words which bring to mind positive images in some people and negative images in others. “Government” is generally a positive or neutral word to progressives, but it is a negative word to people outside of our base. This is my simplest explanation for why we frame. When we persuade, we need to be aware of the way our audience feels about words and phrases—most especially when the audience gets a different “cue” from the language than we see inside our heads.

So whose heads are we trying to look into? Most Americans are in the Democratic or Republican base—they really cannot be persuaded. In the coming election, only about 20 percent can possibly choose between Obama and Romney, the rest are set in stone. So that is who we focus on, the independents, who I prefer to call “persuadable voters” because some Democrats and Republicans remain persuadable and some people who call themselves independent are not really. We need public opinion research to understand the persuadables. All too often, language that seems positive to those of us in the progressive base is perceived very poorly by the persuadables. For example, a few months ago I wrote a proposed message that included the sentences “Extremism and obstructionism has turned Congress into a nearly-useless exercise” and “Americans are impatient with this hyper-partisan Congress; America can no longer afford to wait for its Members to come to their senses.” Considering what’s happened in Congress, that seemed like pretty mild language to me. In focus groups, persuadable voters were really turned off. They thought it was too negative. (Fortunately they loved the other sentences tested.)

One reason why some progressives attempt to frame without such research is that polls and focus groups are expensive and we often don’t have access to research that has tested one phrase against another. We do have one advantage while Barack Obama is President—anything noteworthy that he says more than once was probably tested. For example, “Everyone gets a fair shot, everyone gives their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules” is fantastic. We should all use it.

WWP: Another question related to this: Do you have examples of progressive language that you couldn't have developed without focus groups, and how do you know if it has been effective?

Bernie Horn:  When we attempt to create new framing language, we have to hypothesize what might work, and then test whether or not it succeeds—just like a garden-variety science experiment. The primary recommendation in Framing the Future is to describe the progressive philosophy as “freedom, opportunity, and security for all.” (Doesn’t sound like much? Read the book.) Pollster Celinda Lake tested it a variety of ways. In a long series of individual values, all three scored well, but “freedom”—which progressives don’t say often—is clearly the most powerful political value. She then tested slogans based on “freedom, opportunity, and security for all” against other slogans based on: Al Gore’s “the people, not the powerful,” Bill Clinton’s “the common good,” and John Edwards’ “two Americas.” Freedom, opportunity, and security tested best, although all were popular except “two Americas” which voters saw as too polarizing. Then these ideas, each expressed in two sentences, were compared to the generic conservative message. “Freedom, opportunity, and security” was the only progressive message that scored higher than the conservative message. I had a hypothesis that this might be the result, but there’s no way to know without public opinion research.


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