TERRY PRONE: How focus groups and opinion polls put us in a spin this election

This general election paid too much attention to focus groups and polls which allowed the media people to pontificate instead of finding real news, writes Terry Prone.

MY absolute favourite candidate in the campaign wasn’t even in my constituency, but his leaflets were saved and passed on to me by a friend who found it on his doorstep. You will, of course, assume that ‘leaflet’ means one of those bits of paper folded over once, or even twice. Uh uh.

This guy’s literature expands to twelve sheets on one side and twelve matching sheets on the other.

The sheets tell how the candidate saved two IRA men’s lives, how he made a pornographic film in the nineteen eighties and how a stated number of members of the big parties still own copies of this porn movie. Why a set number of members of big parties would have hung on to a piece of 30-year-old porn is never indicated, although you’d imagine the shoulder pads would put them off. Nor are the political implications of porn-retention clear from his leaflet, although he fairmindedly says, looking back on it, that he wasn’t very good in the pornographic movie, so maybe the point he’s making is that the unnamed political owners have no cinematic taste. That an important qualification for a life in politics is a strong aesthetic sense, applied to porn films, is a new proposition worth your serious consideration.

Because I would not wish to identify the gentleman involved, even post-election, I wouldn’t tell you how many votes he got even if I had paid attention to the early tallies in his constituency. All I will say is that his candidacy speaks to the dense richness of modern Irish life. You don’t get that many leaflets in your door where the candidate claims to be BDSM and gives positional details. See what I mean about dense richness? That rich density needs to be revived. It was nearly steam-rollered flat by the general election. Thanks be to God it was a short campaign, because if it had been any longer, the rich density of Irish life would have been steam-rollered six feet under.

The key factors in the homogenising of Ireland, over the past three weeks? Focus groups. Opinion polls. Media. There you have it.

How focus groups and opinion polls put us in a spin this election

This election is like that lovely house on the cliff whose owners have had to abandon it because the cliff is being eroded and the house is going to fall over into the sea at any moment. The election was like that. Normal and boring for ages, and then suddenly the possibility of forming a government was on a cliff-edge. In The Restaurant terms, it was like a dinner of prawn cocktail and shepherd’s pie (yawn, how last century) followed by a Heston Blumenthal explode-on-your tongue reinvention of pudding that makes you doubt the survival of your taste buds.

Now, here’s a little known truth. When it comes to research, focus groups lead to shepherd’s pie: a boring load of ingredients cooked in a way that challenges nobody leading to an end result that amounts to nothing. If you want shining breakthrough insight on what will set the blood of the voters racing, lift their hearts and focus them on voting for you or your party, getting together a bunch of people who have the time to waste warbling about politics over tea and Marietta biscuits is not going to do it for you. Bill Clinton articulated the point 20 years ago. But the faith in focus groups is like the faith in diets. It is undimmed by a lousy track record.

Focus group research is predicated on the assumption that by diminishing a party to the kind of comments non-politicians make in group, you will be safer. It misses a crucial factor, which is that voters like to feel proud of themselves for their choice of candidate. In the old days, voters in some highly capitalistic south Dublin constituencies felt better about their little selves because they voted for Labour, which at the time was intellectually cool. This last election is unique in that no party seems to have seen voters as anything other than scaredy cats and human begging bowls: frighten them about the Grinch waiting to wreck the economy and promise them tax cuts.

How focus groups and opinion polls put us in a spin this election

But voters don’t want to feel diminished by their vote. They want to feel ennobled by their vote, and other than a few Independent candidates, not including my BDSM man, nobody seemed to get that. Nobody presented the role Ireland should have on the international stage. Nobody set out to establish that Ireland could be the best in the world at anything much, unless you count cherishing the recovered economy. None of it was helped by opinion polls. Media loves opinion polls because it allows media people to pontificate instead of finding real news. Politicians love opinion polls because they all have a bit of my BDSM man in them and they get a kick out of frequent whippings and beds of nails. Opinion polls, this time around, reduced the complexity of the democratic imperative to a recurring “who will you go to bed with?” question. The political leaders, even the little ones whose leadership was tiny and largely hypothetical, kept being invited to rule in or rule out prospective partners in government. They all began to act like Elsa in Frozen, terrified to touch anything in case they froze it solid.

Media, meanwhile, went into ferocious competition in the interests of transparency and ratings.

Everybody wanted leaders, everybody wanted a leaders debate all to their little selves.

Everybody did stirring promotions. Well, maybe they thought they were stirring, but me, I was not only not shaken, but severely unstirred by promos suggesting that the key issues for taxation would be debated by five politicians later in the programme. I knew what was going to happen. The Sinn Fein leader would get lost between millions and billions and the rest would get sucked into the ‘Fiscal Space’.

Media was also hampered by the balance requirement. Could someone please look long and hard at this before we have another election? Balance does not reside in the stop watch allocation of equal time to different candidates. That leaves out tone, phrasing of questions and attitude of broadcasters. It even leaves out the proper respect for role. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste got their titles pretty much all the time, but the others sometimes ended up as first names, which skewed how viewers and listeners would interpret the debates. The attitude of most broadcasters was one of self-righteous contempt suggesting that all politicians are intrinsically evil and cannot be trusted to state their case without being interrupted, attacked and surviving snide comments.

How focus groups and opinion polls put us in a spin this election

That last is not good for democracy. Sitting in an ivory tower broadcasting studio doesn’t entitle anybody to ignore the fact that many people who go into politics are driven by idealism and hope, work themselves to the bone and find themselves turfed out at the end of their stint because a constituency was re-drawn or because of some other reason for which they had no responsibility. The way media portrayed it in the last three weeks, you’d think finding a good dictator would solve all our problems.

The faith in focus groups is like the faith in diets. It is undimmed by a lousy track record

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