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Stu Spencer Politics Still Works

May 24, 2011 

Famed California political consultant Stu Spencer, architect of the elective career of former President Ronald Reagan, believed in old school politics.

He liked to get a grasp on how his campaign was doing by conversing with everyday voters at the local diner. That was about as high-tech as he got.

He often said you should be able to “feel” a winning campaign as much as read about one in the overnight polling data.

Focus groups were certainly not part of his vernacular. They are in much use today however, and consist of a group of people being asked their opinions and attitudes about products, services, issues, and political candidates.

The persons selected for these interactive sessions are usually paid for their time, and often meet in a hotel conference room where a professional moderator controls the ebb and flow of the discussion.

In reality, a focus group setting is far from how people make their decisions about anything, let alone how they might go about viewing the world around them. Some professionals are skeptical of the idea that you can get a true reading on people’s attitudes in such a controlled environment.

Still, campaigns and corporations swear by their use, and the result is predictable; most products, services, and candidates, sound exactly the same.

The Spencer method of doing things is surely regarded as low tech, and perhaps there are better ways to conduct qualitative research than striking up a conversation with someone at the local diner.

But his method is true to form on how people process information and make their decisions; it is done quietly in a normal environment and natural setting.

After all, how many of us make decisions, big or small, among strangers in a hotel conference room surrounded with biscuits, muffins, and hot coffee. Very few of us, if any, are paid $100 or more for our time, and the pleasure of doing it that way.

It does take years of experience to make decisions based on the old-school method, and metaphorically, some guts to know you have “seen the same play a few times before, and recognize that only the cast of characters have now changed.”

Spencer was the best at analyzing the situation of a campaign in mid-stream, and making adjustments in real time. He knew instinctively what voters thought on various issues, and how they could best play to the strength of his candidate.

He also trusted his instinct which isn’t easy when you are absent strict polling data to rely on a decision. There’s nowhere to hide, and certainly no one to blame, if things go the wrong way.

These days it’s pretty obvious who is using focus groups and who is not. Does anyone believe the short-lived campaign of Donald Trump relied on the use of focus group data when he spoke?

Of course not, and while some would argue Trump quickly shot himself in the foot, consultants should take note that he rocketed to the top of the polls because voters saw him as authentic and a non-politician.

As the 2012 presidential election process unfolds we'll easily know which candidates are speaking their mind, and which are recounting what they’ve learned from the inside of a qualitative research laboratory.

Let’s hope the influence of the voter, the kind Stu Spencer found at the local diner, still comes through.