Information is not insight

Editor’s note: James Forr is head of insights at Olson Zaltman.

Even before the firestorm about the president’s age, economists wondered why Joe Biden got no credit from the public for an economy that is, by the numbers, quite robust. Democrats wondered how Biden could be trailing against a convicted felon who himself is deeply unpopular. Polling analysis wondered why Biden had lost ground with young voters and people of color.

I have spent nearly 25 years helping major brands understand their consumers. At various times, my firm also has dabbled in research for progressive causes and Democratic election efforts. 

My work in the corporate sector has spoiled me. Those research departments and marketers are constantly seeking fresh insights about their consumers, always experimenting with new methodologies and often inclined to challenge convention with their messaging. 

Not so with Democrats and progressives, who study the same old topics with the same old approaches and communicate the same old ideas in the same old ways. That’s why Biden’s dismal polling is no shock to me.

In two fundamental ways, Democrats don’t get it.

Misunderstanding No. 1: Voters are Vulcans 

The last several decades of research in psychology, behavioral economics and linguistics have revealed the extent to which we are moved by unconscious influences, including our implicit emotional experiences. Facts don’t stand on their own; our feelings shape how we interpret the facts.

Not all corporate marketers apply this insight well, of course, but most of them at least understand it. Mention it among progressives, though, and they gawk as if you have three eyes.

Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg exemplifies his party’s thinking about persuasion. Rosenberg, who cut his political teeth inside Michael Dukakis’s failed presidential campaign, uses his Substack to regurgitate lengthy lists of the Biden administration’s accomplishments. In an hour-long video lecture bloated with statistics, he urges his followers to sway their Trump-curious friends with pie charts and histograms.

It is as if Rosenberg believes voters are programmable machines who will do what you want provided you input the right data. The Biden White House is no better. Its website is a technocratic fever dream of complex infographics, layers of policy achievements, wonkish verbiage and all the emotional appeal of a drywall panel. 

For that matter, see how Biden’s team prepped him for the first debate, filling him with policy minutiae that, even if delivered coherently, only would have put viewers to sleep.

Misunderstanding No. 2: Information is insight

This rationalist mind-set shapes how the party conducts research. Attempts at understanding voters’ unconscious minds are, at best, treated as sideshow curiosities. More typically those efforts are disparaged or simply ignored. Instead, most research is surface-skimming – focus groups, endless horse race and issue polling, and A/B testing of messages – which yields volumes of information but precious little insight.

Navigator is a progressive-aligned agency that polls voters about which issues are important to them and which solutions they believe would best address the country’s challenges. 

It churns out charts like this:

Democrats like Rosenberg swoon over Navigator. Their polling makes messaging seem simple. “If voters believe A, B and C about issues X, Y and Z then we just need to say A, B and C about issues X, Y and Z.”

However, I believe this kind of research shouldn’t be taken at face value: 

  • It ignores the importance of framing. Voters don’t engage with issues; they engage with descriptions of issues. The way Navigator describes a policy in a poll is often not the way voters experience that policy through the lens of media coverage, candidate messaging or even discussions with friends and family.
  • Issues are not isolated from each other in voters’ minds, as polling would suggest. Unless candidates present their ideas as part of a larger emotional narrative, they end up with a splatter of stray bullet points that lack persuasive power. 
  • Issue polling can only tell you how things are right now. It doesn’t help you envision how things could be. 

These are areas where Republicans excel. Glenn Youngkin became governor of Virginia thanks to his position on restoring parental rights, including opposition to teaching critical race theory (CRT) in public schools. No poll could have told him that CRT was a winning issue because almost no one knew what CRT was until he started harping on it. 

Youngkin’s characterization of CRT successfully shocked and infuriated swing voters. He made a non-issue into a hot-button emotional touchstone by thinking beyond what polling could have told him. It isn’t that Republicans ignore quant research, but they don’t depend on it to tell them exactly what to say and exactly how to say it.

Thoughtful qualitative research can add invaluable depth and color to quant findings, and Democrats rely heavily on focus groups. The quality of these focus groups is questionable, however, based on transcripts published by a leading Democratic research firm.

I reviewed the posted transcripts from several focus groups on the firm’s website, published in 2019. Here is an excerpt (participant names have been masked):

Moderator: Meredith, anything going well in the country that you can point to? 

Meredith: Not really. Well, not letting everybody in. That's something good, I believe. Hispanics and stuff. They should come in legally if they want to come in. [Donald Trump] is cleaning it up. 

Moderator: Elena, anything good you can point to? 

Elena: I've got to agree with Meredith now. 

Sara: I'm with her and Meredith. 

Moderator: Not too much? 

Sara: No. 

Moderator: So not even the economy? 

Sara: No. I don't think economy's all that great. 

Julia: I don't either.

Moderator: We'll get back to that in a second. But let me just ask you one question and then we'll move on. When you think about your kids, or if you don't have kids, just sort of the next generation, do you feel mainly hopeful or more doubtful about where they're going?

Julia: Sad.

Meredith: Sad.

Maria: Doubtful.

All the possible shortcomings of a focus group laid out in less than a minute – leading questions, shallow answers, groupthink and virtually no follow up. Yet, from this come the so-called insights this widely respected organization uses to advise Democratic candidates across the country.

The solution: Deeper thinking, better research

Even in a focus group someone may accidentally say something interesting. The transcript also featured this exchange (participant names have been masked):

Moderator: OK, Elena, good things [about Trump]?

Elena: He knows how to divide and conquer. 


Elena: That’s the only thing I have to say.

ModeratorStephanie, good things?

That couldn’t be the only thing Elena had to say. A curious interviewer freed of the handcuffs of a focus group would have gone to town with her on a metaphor like “divide and conquer.” Dividing whom? Conquering whom? What does it mean to conquer? How do you feel when you see Trump conquering? Why? Paint me a symbolic picture that shows Trump dividing and conquering? Where would you be in that picture? What would you be saying, thinking and doing?

More thoughtful questions such as these can yield revelations about the unconscious thinking that shapes voter behavior – their hopes and dreams, their beliefs and biases, their worldview and the stories they tell themselves about themselves.

For example, in 2008, my firm conducted research for the National Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, which was seeking to understand why some white male union members who typically voted Democratic were reluctant to support Barack Obama.

We learned in our in-depth interviews that their concern wasn’t about the issues. Instead, it was about race – but not even just race, per se. As a young Black man from outside the political establishment, Obama was a symbol of a changing society, which sparked an existential fear in these men. If the world their parents and grandparents had built was vanishing, where did that leave them? 

I believe this would have never emerged from a focus group or a poll. In a remarkable speech that October, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka brought these beliefs to the surface and pleaded with union members to set their fears aside. Obama’s victory was attributable in part to his support from white union members, who supported him at a rate higher than non-union whites. It was an all too rare example of Democrats successfully exploring voter psychology and then implementing those insights in unexpected ways.

By and large, though, Democratic messaging has been limp and ineffective for more than 50 years, during which time they have surrendered decades-long control of the House, lost the Supreme Court and more. Democrats have only won presidential elections when their candidate was preternaturally gifted with personal magnetism (Obama and Bill Clinton) or when a Republican incumbent presided over a generational calamity (Jimmy Carter in the wake of Watergate; Biden following Trump’s mishandling of COVID-19). 

If Trump wins in November, Democratic strategists will blame Fox News, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and so-called “low-information voters.” Instead, they should point the finger directly at themselves, specifically their approach to communication and their flimsy understanding of voters and the culture in which we live.