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Questionable Convention Polls

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Aug. 4, 2000


NBC News for many years was widely known for reliable news reporting. At this year’s Republican National Convention it is giving the public unreliable reports of public opinion about events at the convention. In a two-pronged assault on its own credibility NBC is reporting results of focus groups conducted by Republican pollster and consultant, Frank Luntz. On opening night of the convention he called the focus group’s utterances "representative" opinion.

Also on its web page it has what it calls a National Internet Focus Group run by This web focus group gives anyone who chooses to participate the opportunity to express a second-by-second reaction to key prime-time speeches. Erik Sorenson, the head of MSNBC said, "we’ll be able to go directly to the people and find out what they’re thinking." If he means a representative sample, we disagree.

Focus groups usually consist of moderated discussions among small groups of people. They are generally chosen because of some background characteristic related to the topic being studied. The Luntz panel includes 36 voters who said when selected that they were uncommitted in their presidential preference this year. The SpeakOut panel includes as many web surfers as care to take the time to give their opinions.

While focus groups are useful for supplying context and nuance about a variety of issues or topics they are not a reliable gauge of public opinion on these subjects. Conclusions about what percentage of the general public holds a particular view, or any generalizations about the public, cannot be made from a focus group. Luntz talks about Republicans’, Democrats’ and independents’ opinions as though they applied to all members of those groups in the general public. In fact, those are only the opinions of those in his focus group. There is nothing scientific about these focus groups. They are more akin to a parlor game than to a public opinion poll.

While many news organizations have their news polling conducted by non-partisan pollsters (or a bi- partisan pairing) Luntz is widely known for his work in behalf of Republicans., a Web site and Internet service run by the National Young Republicans, sponsors the Luntz focus group. Luntz was instrumental in conducting research for the Contract With America. The American Association for Public Opinion Research found Luntz in violation of its ethics code when he repeatedly refused to make public essential facts that supported the conclusions promoted by the Newt Gingrich led GOP caucus.

Live reports of Luntz focus group are part of the MSNBC convention coverage. The group, when urged by Luntz, has voiced it opinions on its current leanings for President, its opinion of Vice President nominee, Dick Cheney, and its reactions to Colin Powell’s speech on opening night. An MSNBC press release said the opinions of the Luntz effort would be compared to the reactions of the SpeakOut panel - a meaningless exercise, if ever there was one.

For more information about this and other polling issues, contact the NCPP Polling Review Board Members.

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