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On Polls and Focus Groups and Politics

Posted by: David Kiley on January 9, 2008

I heard George W. Bush the other day stumble through a paragraph on how the Presidential candidates should not build positions based on polls. The context of this was that the President was trying to say that he hasn’t governed by polls or focus groups.

The first thing that comes to mind is maybe he’d have had a better presidency if he had.

What I mean is this: Polls and focus groups are tools, not answers. Too many marketers (and make no mistake, politicians are marketing themselves as products and brands)treat the results of surveys and focus groups as answers to questions.

Bush says he doesn’t care that his approval rating hovers around 30%, or that a clear majority of Americans don’t support his Iraq policy. But the right way to look at those surveys and polls should have been a sign-post to address two things: Could it be that a President should not continue to push a policy that some 60%-70% of the country thinks is wrong-headed. Does the fact that such a large plurality of people I represent tell me something about whether this is in the best interest of the country? The conversation doesn’t seem to get that far in the Bush White House.

At minimum, does the fact that the surveys and polls run so much against the Bush Doctrine inform the Administration that perhaps they should take a different tack on communicating the strategy? It doesn’t seem to have gone that far either into the conversations in the West Wing.

Focus groups and polls are great tools to advance a cause, a brand or a position. But only if they are used and interpreted correctly.

Consider the issue of hybrid vehicles. When GM and Ford surveyed consumers a decade ago about whether they wanted hybrid vehicles, and described the vehicles in detail, the costs, and how they worked to consumers, the answer came back that they weren't interested. However, had they asked people about what they were interested in doing as a benefit to the environment, or how they would feel about a company that made such products, as Toyota did, the responses came back with enough sign posts to greenlight a very sucessful hybrid program.

Especially as the New Hampshire Primary results ran against the polling data, polls, focus groups and surveys are getting a bad name again. I would submit, however, that these are still valuable tool to those who know what questions to ask, how to ask them and howw to interpret the answers.

Reader Comments


January 18, 2008 7:10 PM

Bush saying he doesn't care about his approval rating is like a company saying they don't care what customers want.

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News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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