What is wrong with U.S. politics

Tom Dougherty, CEO – Stealing Share

27 September 2010

What is wrong with U.S. politics?


Politics in America is in a quagmire. No matter which side of the aisle you sit on personally, we all agree with Will Rogers when he was asked many years ago what he thought about FDR if he got elected during his first run at the Presidency. “Well,” Will said, “if he gets elected and the White House catches fire and burns to the ground we will say at least he got something started.”

The reason nothing ever gets accomplished in the partisan politics of today has everything to do with the process (i.e., focus groups) by which the political parties ridiculously believe they understand the needs and wants of the populace.

Napoleon, who no one can doubt exemplified the ability to lead, once said, “Without doubt the first duty of a ruler is to do what the people want. But what the people want is almost never the same as what the people say. Its will and needs ought to be found not so much in the people’s mouth as in the ruler’s heart.”

Well said.

For-profit companies come to us to uncover what the people want. It is Stealing Share’s charter to uncover that knowledge and to identify the barriers to acceptance. We never conduct focus groups. We conduct meaningful research that is designed to uncover truths, beliefs, needs and wants. We then test these findings to make sure they are persuasive and move the brand into a position of power so it changes the market space and redefines the selling argument.

Maybe politics has not learned this lesson because the players are trading in votes and power and not real money (well not their money anyway). Companies that need to win and can’t afford waste or the wastefulness of a single move know better than to ask us to conduct focus groups.

Just this morning, NPR reported on President Obama as he sets off on a four-state, three-day political tour. According to NPR, the trip includes a big rally in Madison, Wis., aimed at mobilizing younger voters.

I have no idea where the insight into influencing the behavior of these “younger voters” came from, but the same report went on to quote Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. He said the insight has “the wrong answer.” According to NPR, Greenberg has been conducting focus groups for congressional candidates across the country. “He says the argument that things are slowly getting better might wash with professional economists, but it doesn’t fly with many voters.”

If Mr. Greenberg and the Democratic Party are basing their strategy on focus groups, I am stating with absolute certainty that he is wrong. Focus groups are never revealing and they are never projectable research. They are just a wasteful example of being process driven. That is, being satisfied by doing something even if what you do has little bearing on the job at hand. Will Rogers would applaud this sort of activity — even if all they get is the “White House catches fire and burns to the ground.”

The problem with focus groups is the idea of the “group.” People act and speak differently in a group then they do in the privacy of their own world. No doubt everyone but the Republicans, Democrats and Tea Party has heard of the group mentality.

Focus groups are led by leaders, including both the facilitator and the extremes of the participants. As a result, they reflect that leadership and not the individuals in it. Within that crucible, all sorts of ideas are possible and most of them are dead wrong. At their best, focus groups deliver ideas that are so vanilla that no one objects or, so extreme, that everyone gets more polarized.

Wait a moment. Sounds a lot like the rhetoric and strategy of all the political parties, does it not?

Leadership has a prerequisite — the willingness to lead. Real research, the kind we do here at Stealing Share and Resultant Research, is designed to sell products and ideas to those that currently have an affinity to a competitor’s idea or product. Maybe our “leaders” should get with the program and tell the focus group pollsters to try to peddle their wares to the competition?


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