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Defending Political Focus Groups

The next speaker at CMPM2014 is Stephen Mills, a market research practitioner from UMR Research New Zealand. His interest is in the much-maligned device of the political focus group: a tool which continues to have a significant impact on political decision-making. This started during the Second World War, when Robert K. Merton researched how Americans could be encouraged to support the war effort.

But since then they've been increasingly strongly criticised for replacing political leadership, for leading to soft decisions rather than necessary reforms, for pandering to prejudice, taking over the role of political parties, driving leadership churn, and losing elections (this has been highlighted especially in the context of the ALP's self-destruction as it replaced Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard).

However, such claims are often totally wrong, Stephen says. Often political decisions are made far too quickly for focus groups to be able to be conducted – but politicians already understand much of the mood of the electorate and rarely follow focus group results directly even when they are conducted. This betrays a lack of popular understanding of what focus group results represent, and how they translate into the political process. The reality of where marginal seats are located tends to be much more important in driving decision-making.

Focus groups are a great way to capture the "magic" of politics: understanding and nuance. They give a voice to audiences, test ways to present policies, ensure the effectiveness of arguments, and counter prejudice, and ensure the effective use of resources especially in a campaign context.