The Democratic Debates: A Terrible Focus Group

 In Methods, Thought

Instead of watching live, I recorded the second night of the second Democratic debate and watched it today. I spent most of the week in focus groups across the country and it was great to get home to Denver and watch the debate, even if on delay.

Some of the early questions attempted to pit one candidate against the other, making the group of ten into a dyad – a directed conversation between two people inside of a group setting. Breaking away from the split-screen shot of two people, CNN reset to a wide shot. Ten podiums. Ten candidates. All of a sudden I saw them not as presidential candidates, but as research participants in a focus group. A terrible focus group.

We advise clients that the maximum number of participants in a group conversation should be six if the goal is to gain deeper understandings and insights of lived experience. We sometimes talk to eight people in one room if the goal is to get quick reactions to stimulus. If you put more than six or eight in one room there is no time for consideration, depth of interaction or even explanation. Everyone fights for space and jumps in to add on just one more thing to someone else’s answers. Sound familiar? This low-level of conversation and understanding is even more stifling when moderators impose arbitrary time limits to answers. Please, Mayor De Blasio, “the rules. Please follow the rules.”

In this debate the function clearly followed the form. The Democratic National Committee, in allowing for up to ten candidates on one stage made it almost impossible for any level of detail, insight or deeper understanding to be uncovered. Viewers knew more about the candidates after the debate, certainly, but it was a missed opportunity to allow candidates to tell their stories and both introduce themselves and connect with interested viewers (i.e. voters).

The third debates are in September in Houston. Currently seven candidates have qualified and the others have until August 28th to meet participation requirements. One debate with seven candidates would allow for a deeper consideration of ideas and discussion among candidates than we have seen in the first two rounds. However, it looks like the number will grow – maybe to the maximum of ten on the stage.

If more than seven candidates qualify I’m hoping we get to at least eleven. That will force the DNC to split the debates over two nights (not ideal) but also to use smaller groups. My experience as a qualitative researcher says that two groups of six or fewer will give these candidates the chance to connect with voters and make their case rather than merely fighting for space.


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