The 2016 presidential campaign has been punctuated by polling. It also has showcased other research techniques that can produce useful and fairly reliable results.
The second presidential debate featured an audience in St. Louis of undecided voters who were given a chance to question the candidates. The two presidential debates and the vice presidential debate were followed by on-air focus groups. Both major party candidates lean heavily on new media to get out their messages and use analytics to measure their “share of voice” and affinity with target audiences.
As the presidential race has grown market in tone, another type of research has emerged from the shadows – opposition research. With a treasure trove of resources to scour, fact-checking has become as good as or better than opposition research.
These techniques aren’t necessarily revolutionary, but they represent a quantum leap from the groundbreaking outreach techniques as recently as the 2008 presidential election won by Barack Obama.
While political polls have been unmasked as variable depending upon their samples and sampling techniques, efforts to hear directly from target audiences immediately after a debate have been widely lauded as telling. Fortunately, these groups have been asked to respond to questions about whether candidates made their point rather than whether they won the debate.
In one on-air focus group following the second presidential debate, six people – three for Donald Trump and three for Hillary Clinton – were questioned. The three Trump supporters expressed varying degrees of disgust with the GOP nominee’s taped remarks about women, but said they still supported him. Subsequent polling verified that Trump’s core supporters weren’t deserting him. The on-air focus group provided human-scale answers about why.
Because most people already have made up their minds between Clinton and Trump, it was a smart choice to populate the St. Louis debate audience with undecided voters. Their questions and reactions to candidate answers provided a unique window into what might tip them one direction or the other. The final question asking candidates to identify one thing they respect about their rival generated about the only positive moment in a debate that was described by commentators as a knife fight.
The growing role and importance of digital and social media is the most notable difference with past presidential campaigns. As recently as 2008, GOP nominee John McCain declined to have a digital presence. That would be unthinkable today.
Trump is a master of Twitter, turning tweets into cascades of traditional media coverage. Clinton’s campaign has used engagement techniques such as giving Instagram users a chance to pick her pantsuit color and posting videos after high-profile events to saturate social and digital media, aiming at key constituencies from Latinos to Millennials. The analytics available on social and digital media provide instant feedback, which enables quick turns on content and an ability to promote content that is trend worthy on the most promising channels.
Opposition research isn’t new either, but what makes it seem new is that it you see or hear the results in video or audio clips. The “official” record for a candidate extends far beyond how he or she voted on a particular bill. As Trump discovered, it can include a hot-mic tape of a conversation in a van.
Fact-checking by third-party watchdog groups has become a powerful fuse for social media information sharing. It is a form of research that can have a cumulative effect on how voters view the veracity of candidates.
Techniques centering on talking directly to target audiences and measuring online impacts are not unique to politics. Nor is opposition research of third-party fact-checking. But political campaigns have a habit of bringing some techniques into the sunlight and turning them into market research best practices.