The role of focus groups in federal electoral campaigns

Date of Completion

January 1999


Political Science, General




The purpose of this research is to examine the role focus groups play in federal electoral campaigns. Although focus groups—small group discussions led by a moderator—have been used in fields such as marketing research and sociology for many years, only in the past decade or so have politicians begun frequently employing this qualitative methodology. According to accounts in the popular media, focus groups are commonplace in campaigns, but this research indicates that is not the case. Instead, focus groups are relied upon a great deal in presidential elections, but much less so in U.S. senate races, and hardly at all in campaigns for the U.S. House of Representatives. Moreover, the decision to use focus groups depends largely on the size of the campaign, the degree of competition, and the personal preferences of politicians and advisors. These conclusions were reached after conducting interviews with federal politicians, their staffs, consultants, political operatives, and observers of federal politics. Additionally, books and articles chronicling various campaigns were also drawn upon. In essence, focus groups are simply a systematic way to obtain constituent input, not vastly different from discussions politicians routinely have with voters. Moreover, while focus groups can provide information helpful to determining how to communicate with voters, it is not essential for success even at the presidential level. Thus, focus groups are part of America's political landscape but they are not universally accepted by politicians. ^