How Will Candidates Reach Voters When They Won’t Watch TV?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 19 2014 8:52 PM

Tuned Out

How will candidates reach voters when they don’t watch TV and are too busy tweeting to care?

(Continued from Page 1)

Or, these data mean campaigns have to create ads or communications strategies that meet audiences where they are migrating. That’s where smart campaigns are headed—and that’s why the poll was sponsored by the Republican firm Targeted Victory and the Democratic firm Well and Lighthouse. Both firms help political candidates navigate this new landscape.

The key to reaching voters, says Democratic pollster Julie Hootkin, is for campaigns to grab voters when they are in information-seeking mode. Participants in the focus group said that they turned to their tablets or computers to check information they saw on television. One woman in Charlotte checked on the backstory behind two actors in a drama. Another gentleman checked to see how a local law would affect him. A third wanted to know if the Dollar Shave Club was a legitimate operation, and a cat owner bought a tool for picking up cat hair she’d seen on TV.

Candidates may be able to push people from their televisions to their other devices. If an ad gets voters to visit a website with their tablets or smartphones, then it’s possible they might hand over information that will let the campaign turn them into supporters. But campaigns need to be careful: If a campaign interrupts voters’ smartphone time, it may lose them. People are willing to let political solicitations come into their homes (their most private actual spaces), but participants in the focus group guarded access to their smartphones like it was their bedrooms. One man called it his “sacred zone.” 

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If people are habituated to checking what they see on television on their phones and tablets, that would seem to offer an opportunity to news outlets. We’re here to give you those facts and answer those questions you have about distorted ads, crazy debate claims, or whatever else ails you. But when participants were asked whether they used their devices to check what they’d heard in commercials or to research candidates, the answers were pretty grim for reporters. No one trusted anyone in the news business: They were either ideologically biased or influenced by money. Gallup says only 44 percent of the country trusts the news media. “I trust MSNBC more than I trust Fox News,” said one participant. “But does that mean I trust MSNBC? No.” Another respondent cited the Des Moines Register as a source of information, but then when asked if he trusted the paper, answered no. “That's why I try to stay away from TV. I don't trust anything I see there,” said another participant. 

The overwhelming feeling is that the participants were frustrated with information they found anywhere other than Wikipedia because they were always discovering that the information was tainted in some way. That’s why five of the 10 participants in the Des Moines focus group said they preferred to get information from candidates directly. At least they knew that information was biased, and they could make their own determinations from there. 

Reporters viewing the questioning were asked if we had any questions we wanted to ask the group. I asked if they spent more time researching candidates or picking out big consumer items like a car or a large-screen television. In Des Moines only one woman spent more time on politics. “I think at the end of the day we’ve got a two-party system, and if you lean one way or the other, the odds that you are going to change your position is minimal,” said one gentleman. “I almost know what I am going to do before these campaigns start. All you’re doing is picking between two cars anyway.” In Charlotte it was a mix. (The group dynamic created a brief flurry of competitive patriotism as people jockeyed to show they were good citizens, which sometimes happens in a focus group.) Those who were honest about their consumer product homework said they spent more time on it because their choice of a car or blender would actually affect their lives most directly. With an election, it isn’t so clear. “With a candidate you might think you have eight options, but then when you vote, you don’t have the eight options,” said Sheila in Charlotte. “It’s not the deluxe model you thought it was.”

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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