One might not realize it, but focus group moderators face occupational hazards. One of these is regular exposure to a malady identified by legendary Long Island, NY teacher Joe Katz: an “exchange of ignorances” among the uninformed. Even those who claim to get their news from reputable news sources often have little clue what their government is doing.
On July 13, our firm moderated a pair of online focus groups with 11 swing voters—those who voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. Five were Democrats, two were Republicans, and four were independents. They live in Georgia, Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, which were “battleground states” in the 2020 Presidential election.
They told us they get their news mainly from sources such as CNN, Fox News, Facebook, local TV stations and their websites, and evening network news. Certain respondents also cited Apple News, Google News, Bloomberg, the BBC, and the Daily Mail.
One might think these folks would be pretty well-informed. And one might hope they would be, given the pivotal role some of them played in the 2020 election outcome. Yet when asked their views about the recent announcement of a bipartisan compromise between Senate Democrats and Republicans on the infrastructure package, only two of the 11 respondents said they were aware of it.
Just one additional respondent knew infrastructure was being pushed by the Biden Administration at all. Vick, 37, a Democrat from Texas, said, “I know that [infrastructure] was one of the issues on [Biden’s] platform that he was pushing, and that…he would be advocating to get our roads and everything back in ship-shape.”
Only one respondent, Robert, a 51-year-old Democrat from Florida, made any sort of broad mental connection between the building collapse in south Florida and the need for upgrades to infrastructure nationwide. Another, Kay, a 59-year-old independent from Florida, did not intuitively make that connection on her own but said, “Now that you mention it, yeah, it should be a wake-up call.”
Not only does Washington political news fail to reach these swing voters, but high-profile political figures also remain largely unknown.
For example, not a single respondent recognized the name J.D. Vance. Only two had heard of his book or the related movie, Hillbilly Elegy, and none knew that he was running for the U.S. Senate from Ohio.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who has been on the court for 27 years, has been in the news lately thanks to a recent push by liberals to encourage him to retire so his replacement can be nominated by a Democratic president. Just two respondents out of the 11 total knew who he was, and one of those two had heard this news story.
The last political figure we asked about was Vice President Kamala Harris. Though all respondents knew who she was, eight of the respondents said they had a neutral view of her owing mostly to the fact that they did not know much about what she has done during her time in office.
Jimmy, 38, a Democrat from Arizona, said, “I feel like I haven’t seen much in the news about her. I don’t know if I’m just skipping it…I don’t really know what she’s been up to.”
When given a hypothetical where Biden does not run for president in 2024 and Harris becomes the Democratic nominee, respondents had this to say:
Blair, a 33-year-old Republican from Texas, said, “I don’t really know what she’s done so far, so I can’t say that I would like to see her as the nominee.”
Robert, mentioned earlier, said, “It’s not like I wouldn’t totally want to see her [as the nominee], it’s just the only thing I’ve heard about her is her house was being rebuilt and I think she just took her first flight, but that’s all I’ve heard.”
Mike, 42, an independent from Georgia, said, “I don’t know much about her, but I feel like she’s pretty new and she’s inexperienced.”
Respondents tend to be more attuned to economic news than political news—particularly the aspects of the economy that shape their daily lives.
So, while there’s a media narrative that the economy is booming, none of the 11 respondents said they were witnessing a booming economy. Most claimed, instead, the economy is still recovering from the pandemic.
Shannon a 49-year-old Democrat from Florida, said, “I’m just looking at all of the closures and the businesses that we have around, I am seeing a lot where we live, people desperate for workers….I just don’t feel that people are making enough money an hour and people aren’t working and health care is out of control, and so I just don’t feel it’s booming because I don’t think people have a lot in reserves. They aren’t able to spend extra, they’re just trying to recover from this last year of mess with the coronavirus. I think it’s on track to get better, but I don’t think we’re there.”
Daniel, 48, a Texas independent, echoed Shannon’s thoughts, “I think we are on recovery stage instead of booming because I don’t think we added anything new to the economy but we’re recovering to get to where it was prior to Covid.”
“Mostly because of unemployment, I think there’s still so many people that can’t find work. It can’t be booming if so many people are out of work,” Blair, a 33-year-old Republican from Texas, said.
Respondents’ views of the housing market more closely resembled the news on the subject—largely because they track what’s going on locally. Only one respondent said she was more likely to buy a house now than a year ago.
Nadine, a 38-year-old Republican from Arizona reasoned, “I think although they say that the interest rates are low, they’re creeping back up and because the supply and demand are driving the demand up. But I think it’s time for me to start building equity no matter what the economy looks like. It’s like double-dutch, you got to jump in at some point.”
The rest of the respondents cited several factors as reasons to not buy a home, as well as the root causes for the current state of the housing market.
Vick, cited earlier, said, “The housing market is a seller’s market, so buyers are paying over asking price” due to low-interest rates.
Kay, 59, a Florida independent said, “The prices are overinflated right now. There’s a shortage of supplies and people to build, so the prices are crazy, crazy high.” Shannon agreed, adding, “I think the prices are out of control right now. We’re in Florida and we’re having an influx of people moving here so we have that on top of low inventory…I could get great money selling but it would cost me more to buy something else.”
Ten of the 11 respondents said their region was less affordable than it was a year ago, and nine said the U.S. has a serious problem with housing affordability.
Some distinctly non-political stories have reached these voters well. Eight of the respondents were familiar with the recent story about the release of a report from the Director of National Intelligence detailing their knowledge of UFOs.
All 11 respondents had heard the news about the collapse of the condo in Surfside, Florida, a story that held headlines for several days as emergency responders began making their way through the rubble.
Apparently, some stories are just too big to avoid.
Rich is the president of Engagious. His company is the industry leader in scientifically testing and refining the effectiveness of business and issue-advocacy content, moment-to-moment. The firm helps its clients become more successful by applying the power of behavioral science and social psychology to dial test focus groups.