Focus Groups: Behind the Two-Way Glass

It’s a Wednesday evening at a non-descript office park in Concord, the largest city in Contra Costa County, about 30 miles east of San Francisco. Ten voters – all Democrats – are led into a meeting room and seated around a large conference table. A two-way mirror runs along one wall, behind it a room where we were allowed to watch. Only first names are used to encourage participants to speak freely.

Mark Baldassare of the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California leads the voters through a 2-hour, open-ended conversation about government – what they like and don’t like, what they want. A similar group of Republican voters will follow. Baldassare starts by asking each participant to complete a sentence: “I’m feeling _________ about the way things are going in the U.S. these days.” Both groups expressed frustration, and even fear for the future.

There’s plenty of bipartisan dissatisfaction – with politicians and government. Jeff, a 52-year-old manager for PG&E, spoke for many of the Republicans in his group: “The government oughta be working on balance the budget – but back everything across the board. And let all the departments deal with that as it may.”

Several Republicans, including Jeff, said they had little faith that politicians of either party would ever really cut spending or shrink government. Many Democrats also said they lacked faith in government. But for different reasons. Some felt elected officials were beholden to special interest groups and rich donors. Keely, a 48-year-old homemaker, wondered about waste.
“I will pay more taxes, but I want someone to open the books. Show me what’s going on. What happened to all this money?”

Every one of these Republicans voted for Meg Whitman over Jerry Brown. But several had positive feelings about Governor Jerry Brown, including Kevin, a 54-year-old health insurance sales manager, who thinks Brown isn’t just focused on running for higher office.

“I mean, there’s something to be said for life experience, regardless of your party. So the fact that he’s kind of a crabby, 74-year-old man makes him endearing, somewhat.”

And Harry, a 49-year-old Latino voter from Danville, acknowledged that Brown inherited a mess.

“So he’s trying to reverse that. And he’s drawing a line in the sand with his own party. So I have to commend him for that.”
But these Republicans had no warm feelings for President Obama — one said he was acting like a monarch. Several Democrats – including Greg, a white carpenter from Pleasant Hill, said some criticism of the President was unreasonable.

“It’s just ‘get rid of Obama,’ for whatever reason. You can call it racism, you can call it hatred. Whatever it is, it’s just so negative it’s amazing.”

There were some surprising areas of agreement in the two groups, like public employee pensions. Even Democrats who were union members said something has to be done to reign in benefits. And Kevin, a 54-year-old African American attorney — agreed.

“You know they get raises and they’re secure in what they get. And, some of them get basically a hundred percent of what they had at their retirement.”

There was also bipartisan concern about education cuts and rising tuition. Amber, a 23-year-old Republican who tutors students in English, mentioned a friend who dropped out of school before getting his masters degree.

“Because he didn’t have the funds to pay for it. He was taking out a bunch of loans and didn’t have the money to pay it back.”

These Republican voters didn’t seem to have an appetite for making social issues the focal point of this year’s elections.

Michael, a Republican father of three who’s retired from the Coast Guard, even launched into a defense of same sex marriage.

“I have friends who are gay who live together who want to get married. They found their mate in life. If it doesn’t last, it doesn’t last. They’ll get a divorce. Everybody should have their own rights to have a happy life.”

Afterwards, moderator Mark Baldassare said conversations like these offer deeper insights into how people feel about important issues in an unfiltered way.

“Trying to hear from people how they describe things in their own terms rather than we who live in a world of experts talking to experts might describe things.”

All these feelings get distilled into votes, which will be counted June 5th when California holds its presidential primary election.