January 18, 2004
Going Deep With Iowa's Meta-Voters
he job pays 60 bucks for less than two hours' work, which is why eight ordinary Iowans are willing to come, a week before Christmas, to a dingy strip plaza on the outskirts of Des Moines to answer questions from a man they have never met. The five women and three men, seated around a table in an oppressive little room with fluorescent lights, have only two things in common: they all plan to vote in Iowa's Democratic presidential caucuses, and each one is still trying to figure out which candidate to vote for.
''I'd like to know why you're undecided,'' Ed Reilly says to the group. ''I'd like to know what you're looking for.'' Reilly is
Reilly listens as the group embarks on a discussion of the candidates, focusing mostly on Gephardt and
They talk about health insurance and trade, about wanting a president who can disentangle the nation from Iraq. But their sense of the Democratic field on these issues is opaque; they don't see how one candidate's agenda differs from another.
The voters do have impressions of the different candidates, but those impressions are visceral rather than carefully reasoned. Gephardt gets credit for his long years of service, but he is still combating the sense that he's overripe. ''He's an old-generation politician,'' says a man who describes himself as a house dad. ''My father liked him.''
From behind a two-way mirror, three Gephardt campaign aides and I munch on candied nuts and cookies as we listen in through a wall-mounted speaker. Jeff Levine, who is the managing director of Reilly's firm, Westhill Partners, warned me that every focus group spawns its own interpersonal dynamic and that this affects the results. Quieter people will inevitably sit farther from the table and have to be drawn into the conversation. Those who grab seats closer to the moderator tend to be more voluble, and the certainty of their opinions can prod others to go along.
In this group, the dominant views clearly belong to the stay-at-home dad and a small-business man right beside him. They chose the seats closest to Reilly, and it is obvious after about 10 minutes that both men, while they may be undecided, are leaning toward Dean. The other voters look like kids in a seminar who haven't done the reading. They are content to nod and follow along.
''He made me want to go clean my room,'' the house dad says of Dean. ''He made me think a little about myself and what I could do.'' A moment later, he adds, ''He's a handsome-looking man.'' An uncomfortable silence follows.
''I don't want to date him,'' he says, by way of clarification.
None of this, of course, would seem to have much to do with the quality of the candidate. But Reilly listens closely. On Monday, Democrats in Iowa will have their say on who should be the Democratic candidate for president, and Gephardt needs to win Iowa to have any real shot at the nomination. On the eve of the caucuses, however, the results in Iowa rest in the hands of an unusually large bloc of undecided voters -- who, judging from the poll Reilly just completed, know next to nothing about the candidates. Gephardt's campaign is running low on money, and so this may be Reilly's last chance to conduct focus groups. He has very little time to get inside the heads of these so-called undecideds, to figure out, in the parlance of politics, how to ''close the deal.''
It would be an easier assignment were it not for the recent rise of the pop-culture punditocracy. It used to be that only the pros in Washington spoke of politics in purely tactical terms, as if they were analysts on ''Monday Night Football'' -- which is why pollsters like Reilly liked talking to ''real people'' about the issues in their lives. But as any pollster will tell you, those distinctions are graying; now every voter with cable TV and an Internet connection speaks the language of the Washington consultant. As the Des Moines focus-group discussion wears on, it begins to sound more and more like a segment of ''Crossfire.''
''I'm just not sure he's been on the national stage long enough, that he has enough experience,'' the businessman says of Dean. ''The last six or eight weeks, the press has really been picking at him, and he needs to start responding to these discrepancies, to these misstatements.''
In two consecutive focus groups, Reilly asks about issues that he thinks separate Gephardt from Dean, like health care and trade, but the groups keep bringing the conversation back to tactics and process. They talk about what ''the average person'' would think, as if they themselves fell into some other category. They talk about ''swing states'' and ''527's,'' which are the independent advocacy groups that have sparked controversy recently in the capital. (The ''527'' refers to the section of the tax code that covers them.) The businessman says that Dean seems vulnerable on ''gay issues.''
At one point, a participant dismisses
Afterward, Reilly seems amused. ''The culture of political analysis has completely overtaken the culture of ideas,'' Reilly says. ''It's people talking about electability and name recognition and favorability. A guy talking about a 527!'' He laughs. ''That's a new one.''
The psychological topography of polling was different in 1988, when Reilly first came to Iowa as a consultant to Gephardt's first presidential campaign. (Gephardt lost the nomination to Michael Dukakis.) Back then, the business of political polling was still low-profile and specialized, a science mostly unknown to the average voter. That was before pollsters became celebrities and pundits; before Dick Morris and his theories of triangulation; before the Republican pollster Frank Luntz produced the Contract With America and the pollsters Mark Penn and Stanley Greenberg emerged as the Democratic Party's dueling visionaries.
In the public mind, polling has become a dark art and a pollster a kind of evil sorcerer. Calling your rivals ''poll tested,'' as
Reilly isn't pushing any agenda for the Democratic Party, and other than the small amount of work he did for Bill Bradley near the end of his 2000 campaign, he has stayed out of presidential politics altogether since '88. A fire chief's son and former marine who came out of Boston's famed Democratic machine, Reilly, 51, makes a substantial living from corporations like Nextel and John Hancock, which hire him to find out which strategies and brands will work with the public.
Reilly laughs at the idea of himself as a kind of political Rasputin whispering into the ear of the candidate; Gephardt, he says, after 26 years in Congress, doesn't need anyone to tell him what to think. ''My job,'' Reilly said the first time we met, ''is to make sure the candidate doesn't confuse his experience with the voters' experience.'' Candidates, Reilly explained, spend their days surrounded by sympathetic aides and eager supporters, and they can begin to think that everything they're saying is landing with meteoric impact on the voter's consciousness. The candidate only knows what message he is sending; he rarely knows, with any accuracy, how faithfully the message is being received. Reilly's main role, he said, is to find out what is getting lost in translation and why.
At the same time, the modern candidate is a product, and you don't sell a product simply by understanding why some people aren't buying it; you have to figure out how to win them over. During a conversation on a plane to Iowa, Reilly, a caffeine abuser, directed my attention to the Diet Pepsi sitting on the armrest between us. ''It's like Coke and Pepsi,'' he said. ''The hardest thing to do in business is to get someone to move from here'' -- he shifted his hand from the pale blue can to an imaginary red one beside it -- ''to here. They taste the same. There's almost no difference. But hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in marketing to do this.
''We're now dealing with a group of people who are sitting back and looking at these two options,'' he continued. He moved his hand back from the can and surveyed the scene. ''And we want to know: can we get them from here to here?''
For a researcher like Reilly, who spends most of his time in the private sector, the analogy to soda is telling. As younger consumers have become increasingly adept at deconstructing marketing techniques, companies like Coke and Pepsi have begun to think more like psychologists than like traditional pitchmen. Whole marketing campaigns are based on the tacit understanding that marketing itself is passe. Research companies, meanwhile, do whatever they can to break through the tired dynamic of focus groups -- like testing your response to skin-care products by interviewing you while you shower, or assessing how you feel about fast-lighting charcoals by showing up at your barbecue.
But political marketing, for the most part, remains largely the same as it was 20 years ago. Reilly has pioneered some innovative methods in his corporate work -- like replacing randomly selected focus groups with a circle of friends and family gathered in someone's living room -- but these tactics are too expensive and time-consuming for the crush of a presidential campaign. What he needs are new and simple tools to pry into the voter's mind, something between a nightly tracking poll and a conversation in the shower.
Two weeks before Christmas, Reilly's poll of some 600 Iowa Democrats, including 200 specifically chosen because they remain undecided, was put, to use pollsters' lingo, ''into the field.'' Carefully briefed surveyors began phoning Iowans from a call center in Orlando, Fla. Jeff Levine patched me in from Washington as he listened to a string of live interviews. We floated from call to call, and while we could talk to each other, neither the surveyor nor the respondent could hear us.
Settling on poll questions is one of the more stressful and critical processes in any campaign. You have 15 minutes with voters on the phone, if you're lucky, and a finite number of questions you can ask. What do you need to know? And how do you word the questions in a way that will elicit the most truthful information?
The most pressing question in the mid-December poll revolved around what has emerged as the central strategic issue in the campaign for the Democratic nomination: ''electability.'' From the start, strategists for Gephardt and all the other Washington candidates pitted against Dean have anticipated that Democratic voters, so ardent about wanting to replace Bush in 2004, would ultimately come to focus less on their rage against the president (which Dean has so successfully mined) and more on which candidate could actually beat him. That was Reilly's No. 1 question: whether caucus-goers were beginning at last to question Dean's electability.
There were a few more mysteries he wanted to solve. Had Iowa become a two-man race between Dean and Gephardt, as Reilly suspected, or was Kerry still close behind? And if it was a two-man race, what could Gephardt do to win over Kerry's supporters? The final questionnaire was given to the phone interviewers just minutes before the polling commenced.
Like all scientific models that seek to impose some kind of mathematical order on the emotional world, polling is inherently flawed. Listening in, I could hear respondents repeatedly saying ''I don't know'' or answering yes or no with various degrees of certainty. But the callers at their stations in Florida had to reduce every response to a single number, no more nuanced than the one that came before. This is why Levine, who has a Ph.D. in political science, likes to listen in on calls -- to hear a hesitation before an answer or a wavering tone of voice.
''The pauses people have can be very telling,'' Levine said as we eavesdropped. ''There's an emerging school of survey research that actually times the length of the pauses. The finding is that there's a very strong correlation between the time it takes to answer the question and the strength of a person's belief.'' (The longer the pause, the weaker the respondent's attachment to the answer.)
''You saw a lot of pauses on a question like, 'Was it worth going to war in Iraq or not worth going to war?''' Levine pointed out. ''People don't feel comfortable picking one or the other.'' This indicated to Levine that perhaps the question of the war, which for months seemed to be a simple equation of for or against, had shifted to a more complicated consideration. ''At the end of the day, what you want to know is what the issue is really about to people,'' Levine said.
n the ground, the Democratic race in Iowa had become the tale of two campaigns marked by an unusually jarring contrast in tone and style. If Dean's campaign were a rock act, it would have been Rage Against the Machine, descending on urban areas like Iowa City and Cedar Rapids with heat and noise, drawing surging crowds at every stop. Gephardt, on the other hand, sounded more like James Taylor, a familiar voice from a more mellow time, playing to coffeehouses and taking requests.
Each man's claim to be the most electable Democrat was pursued at great expense through endless TV ads and a forest's worth of direct mail. And yet the results of Reilly's December poll showed that none of this had much changed the dynamic of the race in the month since his previous poll. Dean had 29 percent of the vote, compared with Gephardt at 22, Kerry at 14 and John Edwards lagging well behind with 7. (
When it came to the big question of electability, the news was mixed. When the campaign polled Iowans back in July, 39 percent of voters said they were most concerned with choosing a candidate who would ''stand up for what is right'' -- a rationale you would expect to be most closely associated with Dean. After months of effort by Gephardt and the other candidates to persuade voters to follow their heads and not their hearts, that number had fallen to 23 percent. During the same period, the number of people who said their priority was finding the candidate who could beat Bush jumped from 13 percent to 25 percent. Taken together, these numbers seemed encouraging for Gephardt; they meant voters were thinking less about nominating a fiery speaker like Dean and more about picking the guy who could actually win.
And yet, when these same voters were asked flat-out which of the candidates had the best chance to beat Bush, their answer came as a disappointment to Reilly and his team: 38 percent said it was Dean, and only 20 percent said it was Gephardt. Electability had become a bigger issue, in other words -- but it was breaking Dean's way. The numbers suggested that Gephardt's strategists may have been wrong when they calculated that the fervor for Dean was simply a way for voters to act on their anger before getting serious about the election. Apparently, in this year of heightened emotion and deep division, a lot of Democrats no longer see ''mainstream'' and ''electable'' as synonymous.
All of which gave Reilly and his team a new puzzle to solve: how could Iowa voters, as they tuned in to the race with greater intensity, be made to believe that Dean wasn't as electable as they thought he was? Reilly needed to know whether the campaign could still sow doubts about Dean and, conversely, whether there were pieces of Gephardt's long record and policy agenda that could win over undecideds.
Unfortunately, polls like this, for all their complexity of statistical sampling, inevitably yield a two-dimensional picture of a race, like a satellite image that shows the shape of craters on the lunar landscape but not their depth. The third dimension is an overlay that can come only from sitting down with the voters themselves, face to face. This is why focus groups were invented.
Reilly listened to all the talk from focus-group members about electability and poll numbers. These comments were useful in that they gave him a sense of what the voters had been hearing on TV and which parts of that message were sticking. But to get to a deeper level of perception, he needed an indirect route into the psyche of the voter, something that would yield more profound insights.
He handed out sheets of paper and pencils. ''Now, I know none of you said you were artists,'' he said, ''but I want you to draw me a picture of what you think the right presidential candidate would look like. Just give me a stick figure and a balloon over their heads. Just give me something symbolic.''
After some nervous laughter, the group went to work on the project -- a kind of Rorschach test in reverse. One woman drew a rudimentary knight with the words ''honor'' and ''honorable.'' A man drew Uncle Sam. There was a page with nothing but the word ''winner,'' and another with a very large figure next to a smaller one. ''I drew someone I could look up to,'' the man explained.
Reilly nodded encouragingly. He validated their art, and they seemed relieved. Next, he asked them to draw the candidates. One woman drew Gephardt on a family farm. ''I remember one picture I saw where he was standing around a lot of farmers,'' she said. ''It just made me feel good.''
A retired union worker explained his smiling portrait of Gephardt. ''He's more of an apple-pie guy,'' he said. ''When I think of Kerry, I think of money, lots and lots of money. I can see Gephardt riding the same horse I do, and I can't see Kerry doing that.''
At last we seemed to be getting somewhere. Reilly ordered up portraits of Dean, which weren't nearly so warm. ''I don't know -- I just drew him as a schoolteacher,'' a laborer said. Another page portrayed him as a bulldog. ''The biggest thing about him is watching 'The Stand,' from Stephen King,'' one woman offered. ''He reminds me of the Devil. I mean, he just looks like the actor. Though he's better looking.''
Some political pros might dismiss this exercise as a slightly more creative version of the old word-association game. But anyone who markets soda or cellphones would tell you that there's a value to knowing how people mentally picture your product. And in fact, it doesn't take a Ph.D. to see that bulldogs and movie villains and teachers -- well, all right, certain teachers -- have characteristics in common. They're intimidating figures, and you would rather not get them irritated.
What all of this told Reilly is that the voters he had assembled didn't really feel as if they knew Howard Dean. Gephardt was like an old family friend -- unexciting, perhaps, but reliable. He was a default position. Dean was a vibrant and enticing new option, but he was ill defined, and his courtship of Iowa voters hadn't yet ended in marriage. Reilly said he believed that the electability numbers that favored Dean in his latest poll, while daunting, could still be reversed if the campaign could reinforce precisely the right distinctions between Gephardt and Dean.
This is what good pollsters have learned to do in a world where every shred of presidential politics is deconstructed, round the clock, on every cable channel. To circumvent the culture of analysis, as Reilly calls it, he becomes less a traditional pollster and more a political psychologist. His focus groups, at their best, might more aptly be described as a kind of group therapy -- the chief difference being that here the object is to enlighten the interlocutor and not the subjects. At one point in our conversation, Reilly even started to sound like a shrink. ''I think we've got a very good bead on who these undecided voters are now,'' he said. ''I think we know what their conflicts are.''
The voters in Reilly's polls weren't focused on the relative merits of the candidates' policy proposals -- and, given the minor programmatic distinctions of each candidate's platform, it's pretty hard to blame them. But then, Coke and Pepsi haven't sold soda on the merits of the product since the days of the drugstore soda fountain. They sell it on the emotion it generates, on the way it makes consumers feel about themselves. It is this type of intimate connection between product and consumer, candidate and voter, that Reilly was really after.
here was no single illuminating number in Reilly's research, no moment of epiphany. His results were disparate and largely intuitive, which is often the case. When you have only so much money to spend on direct mail and TV ads and only a few weeks left to make a difference, it's reassuring to have some data that suggest, if nothing else, that you aren't misreading the race.
''There is reason to believe that people's discomfort with Dean is growing,'' Reilly said after he digested all the numbers. ''They talk about the fact that he's said things that are controversial, said things that might come back and hurt him in a general election. He's said things that he's had to apologize for and retract. Voters are beginning to tune in to him in a more critical way.''
Days after Reilly briefed senior aides on his poll, the Gephardt campaign took down an ad in Iowa on health care, Gephardt's signature policy, and replaced it with a new ad called ''Republicans.'' ''Dick Gephardt is the Democrat Republicans fear most,'' the narrator said in the opening line. Then Gephardt, speaking to the camera in his easy, reassuring way, ticked off his positions on a series of key Democratic issues, like expanding health care and raising the minimum wage. He sounded electable . . . experienced . . . comforting. The ad never mentioned Dean or his temperament. It didn't have to.
Reilly's overnight tracking polls in the days that followed showed the race in Iowa tightening, with Dean and Gephardt nearly tied and Kerry gaining in third. These continuing polls would help solidify a blueprint for the final weeks of the campaign, as the Gephardt team chose where to concentrate its money. If the key undecided votes were in labor households, for instance, they would probably be reached through direct-mail appeals, using the union rolls. If elderly voters emerged as the crucial bloc, on the other hand, they might see an ad contrasting Gephardt's record on Medicare with Dean's.
This, of course, is what makes polling feel like a dark art: the way it slices up the electorate into tiny little tribes, each of which can be pursued separately with a kind of mathematical ruthlessness. Such manipulation is an unforeseen outgrowth of statistical science, as surely as the hydrogen bomb was an outgrowth of atomic physics.
And yet, to watch this process unfold from the inside is to understand that polling has also become, in a troubling way, the most interactive aspect of the modern campaign. Debates are mere recitals of talking points, and even when audience members get to ask questions, they are screened at the door by CNN. Town-hall meetings are empty exhibitions. Even Dean's celebrated Internet blog serves primarily as a conduit to the young and the converted, not to the guy who's worried about losing his factory job to Mexico.
Polling, for better or worse, is the one mechanism by which campaigns -- and governments, for that matter -- are made responsive. It's an imperfect mechanism, to be sure. We would be better served, from a civic perspective, if Ed Reilly were listening to voters talk about the details of health insurance or school reform, rather than about who is most electable or which stick figure looks like which actor. But you can say this for Ed Reilly: at least he's listening.
Matt Bai, a contributing writer, is covering the presidential campaign for the magazine.