Wednesday, September 27, 2006

"Politics Lost": The Kansas City Focus Group

I just finished Joe Klein's "Politics Lost - How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People Who Think You're Stupid." It's a book about political consultants, advisors and hacks and the polls, focus groups and other tactics they use to direct their candidates. Klein gives countless examples of how they've steered presidential candidates in the wrong direction for decades. For junkies and insiders, it's definitely worth a read.

But amid our own Campaign 2006 here in Missouri, where we have a host of contentious races and ballot initiatives and candidates strategizing over decisions and positions, I had to share the following excerpt about a Kansas City focus group back in 2004.

Klein attended this focus group in Kansas City in late September of 2004. The members of the group were undecided between George W. Bush and John Kerry.

Again the excerpt is from the final chapter of Joe Klein's "Politics Lost":

"For most of the two-hour session, the participants said nothing very interesting. They were entirely predictable citizen pundits. They thought Bush seemed like a regular guy and Kerry was aloof. They said they wanted more specifics from the candidates and more high-minded coverage from the media, but the information they possessed seemed to come mostly from negative ads. The conversation was at bottom, synthetic - and yet I sensed some frustration among the participants. They were searching for a quality in the presidential candidates that they couldn't describe. Finally, [the pollster] asked, 'It's the morning after the election. You have exclusive access to the next president of the United States. What advice would you whisper in his ear?'

Silence. Not a single hand was raised. 'Anyone?,' [the pollster] pleaded. And finally a middle-aged white man, a Bush-leaner named John Kenny, said, 'My opinion doesn't have to count.'

Again, silence. No one seemed to understand what he was saying. But then I realized that Kenny was delivering a revolutionary message, undermining the very purpose of the focus group. He was saying: Don't listen to me! The next president, he said, has to 'stand up on his own and do what he thinks is right.'"

While the negative advertising part was certainly notable, the plea for courage and leadership out of our politicians from this undecided voter was refreshing.

Call it a call for conviction. Call it telling voters something they don't want to hear, standing up for a principle that's grossly unpopular because it is in your gut. Call it naked, unvarnished, spontaneous authenticity.

Ok, call me idealistic.

But I'll call it the John Kenny standard, one that more politicians of all parties everywhere should give a try.

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