As researchers, we’re always curious about how focus group respondents choose to wrestle with conflicting values. What happens, for example, when a tough-on-crime mindset runs headlong into conservative populism?
We uncovered the answer in mid-February when we conducted focus groups with 14 uncommitted Republican and right-leaning Independent respondents from states holding early contests in the 2024 Republican primary cycle: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.
Curious how they’d react to states such as Illinois eliminating cash bail for non-violent defendants, we learned that all 14 respondents opposed that move. Yet, there was a marked change of opinion when we reframed the argument as being about rich vs. poor people in identical circumstances being treated unequally under the law.
Their knee-jerk rejection of eliminating cash bail sounded like this:
“I think [ending cash bail] is a bad idea,” explained Brittany, 32, from Sumter, South Carolina. “Even if they’re not violent, you don’t know what else they did to get up in there. You just don’t know the full story that they probably told you—or told somebody else—but they didn’t tell the full truth.”
“Is this like the shoplifting thing?” asked Misty, 47, from Cedar Falls, Iowa. “You could shoplift and steal as much as you want, basically, and the cops can’t do anything to you because they changed the laws? This is like what they did in California?”
Larry, 61, from Salem, South Carolina, remarked, “Prior to this, it was always the judge’s discretion. If he felt you had a lot of money, you would have higher bail to prevent you from jumping bail. If someone is poor, they wouldn’t have as much because you wouldn’t have to charge as much to prevent them from jumping bail.”
“What’s the purpose of having cash bail? It’s there for a reason,” commented Thomas, 58, from Las Vegas, Nevada. “It’s so the person charged will show up for their hearing. It’s not a perfect system but is not having the bail better?”
However, when we presented a scenario where a wealthy person and a poor person are arrested for the same non-violent crime on the same day, resulting in the wealthy person getting out of jail and the poor person being stuck in jail because they can’t make bail, 10 of 14 found this unfair.
Their once-unanimous opposition to ending cash bail in their state softened dramatically when confronted with the idea that wealthy people were getting preferential treatment compared to people of lesser means.
“Now when you put it that way, I can understand where you’re coming from,” remarked Angela, 53, from Loris, South Carolina.
“If the legal system can come up with a better way, I’m willing to listen,” said Nancy, 69, from North English, Iowa. Then, demonstrating the challenge bail-reform advocates continue to face, she added, “Right now, [cash bail] seems the best way that I know of.”
With crime a serious concern among conservative Americans, it will take a sustained effort to reframe the debate. Hence, these voters see themselves as the ones disadvantaged by the current system, while those of considerable means manipulate it for their own benefit.
Rich Thau is the president of the research firm Engagious, which specializes in message testing and message refinement for trade associations and advocacy groups. He is also the moderator of the new Persuadable Partisans Project, conducted in partnership with Sago, formerly Schlesinger Group.
Matt Steffee is vice president of research services at Engagious.