Qualitative Techniques in Elections: A Review of the Literature
Published information documenting the use of qualitative techniques during active election campaigns is somewhat scarce. While qualitative methods are commonly used in political science research, the selection of techniques for campaign research seems to be dominated by the need for very prompt generation of results. Focus groups appear to be the most common of various qualitative techniques reported to be used in campaign research. The use of focus groups in political marketing is a matter of controversy. The recent shift towards political communication via digital media implies that research methods must adapt to a new reality, possibly creating new opportunities for the use of qualitative techniques. Additional research is needed to clarify the role that qualitative methods play in election campaigns, but political actors may resist publicizing details in order to maintain competitive advantage.
Keywords: political marketing, election campaigns, qualitative research, focus groups
Competitive elections are widely recognized as a hallmark of democratic society (Gabriel, 2007; Moraski, 2008). Democratic elections have always required candidates to engage with the electorate, both to secure votes and other forms of support, and also to ensure that the candidates’ policies and messages reflect the views and values of the people. However, for more than half a century, the process whereby candidates engage with constituents has become increasingly complex, dominated by techniques and technologies that have emerged from a variety of academic and management disciplines. These innovations include advertising, media communications, marketing, and various forms of social science research. While quantitative methods—most notably, various forms of polling—have most commonly been put to the service of campaign-related research, qualitative methods have also had their place.
It is the purpose of this literature review to examine the use of qualitative methods in campaign research. Within this overarching goal, the review will situate qualitative campaign techniques within the broader realm of political science research. Following this, the document will give attention to two specific topics where additional research is warranted: the use of focus groups in political marketing and emerging opportunities for the qualitative analysis of digital media. The body of the literature review will interact with the content of more than a dozen sources pertinent to the use of qualitative methods in political campaigns. However, before these sources can be examined, it is necessary to deal with two preliminary matters: defining and describing key terms, and providing some background to the topic under consideration.
Definitions of Terms
Qualitative methods. Cooper and Schindler (2011) described qualitative research methods as an array of techniques for data collection and analysis that have emerged from disciplines such as “anthropology, sociology, psychology, linguistics, communication, economics, and semiotics” (p. 160). What unites these methods is the goal of performing systematic inquiry into the meaning of phenomena rather than focusing on quantifiable dimensions of those phenomena. “Qualitative research—sometimes labeled interpretive research because it seeks to develop understanding through detailed description—often builds theory but rarely tests it” (p. 162).
While many have stressed the differences between quantitative and qualitative research, Jencik (2011) observed that there are significant areas of commonality between them. For example, each kind of method involves a research question, has an underlying connection to theory, and entails procedures for research design, sampling, data collection, data analysis, and reporting of results. Jencik noted further that there is a general trend in social science research toward mixed methods and triangulation, which may secure a stronger position for qualitative research—alongside quantitative research, of course. Quantitative and qualitative methods are tools devised for certain purposes, but they also have certain limitations. Jencik listed three limitations of qualitative research. One of these, the amount of time required to collect and analyze data, has particular significance in that it constrains its potential use in support of election campaigns. That theme will be developed later in the literature review.
Bennett (2011) concurred with Jencik in regards to the trend towards methodological pluralism, which, once again, may bode well for qualitative research (along with quantitative research). Another useful insight from Bennett’s article is that qualitative research is concerned with causes of effects, thus distinguishing itself from quantitative research, which studies effects of causes.
Elections. As implied in the opening paragraph of this literature review, elections, as discussed here, refer to those political processes whereby citizens are freely and competitively able to influence the legislative and executive affairs of their nations through the selection of political leaders. Notably, this document aims to discuss the use of qualitative methods mainly in reference to the election of candidates to political offices. While some sources and analyses may also relate to ballot issues, this is not the primary concern here. Furthermore, the focus is on national-level elections, though, once again, some sources and discussions may also be relevant to more localized races. The intent is to concentrate as much as possible on the American electoral context. However, the use of qualitative methods in political campaigns has been documented more fully in countries other than the United States, and an effective review of the literature cannot ignore this fact.
An Obscure Topic
Nearly 60 years ago, Harris (1957) remarked in The Public Opinion Quarterly about the paucity of political research with an interpretive bent: “Qualitative dimensions of intensity and firmness of opinions have rarely been systematically analyzed, but may make a real difference in any kind of precise percentage point result” (p. 115). Furthermore, he observed that “there is much methodological progress to be made in such directions as integrating qualitative data with quantitative measurements” (p. 116).
Obviously, quantitative political research has undergone substantial development in the past six decades. During national election seasons the media are saturated with findings from public opinion polls, and the campaigns carry out much more quantitative research than most members of the public will ever know. The fate of qualitative research methods is less straightforward. While there is certainly evidence that such methods are used in support of election campaigns, their presence is often more muted. Presumably, much of the data collection and analysis that political actors perform is not publicized for strategic reasons.
Baines and Egan (2001) described the situation in the field of political marketing as follows:
Empirical research into political campaigning is scarce (although certainly not non-existent) in the marketing discipline and many published works are conceptual. This is to be expected at this stage of the subject’s development. The “phenomenon of political marketing” . . . is still relatively new in historical terms, although the process of campaigning has existed since time immemorial. (p. 25)
The evidence and analysis provided immediately above give some indication of the difficulty of performing a literature review on the use of qualitative methods in elections. As the following pages will show, relevant literature does exist, but it is not abundant or conspicuous. Therefore, in an effort to shed light on the subject, this document will cast a wide net, incorporating insights from political science, communication, and marketing, as well as from a disciplinary specialization that bridges all three of these: political marketing.
Qualitative Methods in Election Research
As noted above, when investigating a topic where literature is not plentiful, there is value in exploring literature from various fields, and even beginning with fairly foundational texts. Accordingly, developing some background regarding research methods employed in political science and political communication is in order.
A Broad Range of Political Research Methods
Political communication research. In 2004 Graber, a political science professor, observed that researchers in the field of political communication used a variety of methods—both qualitative and quantitative, and of varying degrees of technological sophistication. In a chapter contributed to the Handbook of Political Communication Research, she highlighted four major approaches to political communication research: survey research, content analysis, network analysis, and experimental methods.
As of 2000-2001, when the data reported in the chapter were gathered, survey research was the dominant approach; however, she observed that where funding permitted, political communication researchers employed multiple methods: surveys containing both open-ended and closed survey questions, combined with “depth interviews, focus groups, and various psychological testing devices” (p. 52).
According to Graber, content analysis applies to political messages conveyed in any medium. Such analysis can be manual or computer-assisted, qualitative or quantitative. Furthermore, “qualitative analysis, if done systematically based on well-defined criteria, can be very useful and accurate” (p. 53). Because of the relatively high cost of conducting content analysis, research is often highly selective, focusing, for example, on front-page news stories.
Network analysis deals with the relationships between two or more parties to a communication process. It had not gained widespread adoption as of the time that Graber wrote. While it leans toward the quantitative, it may not exclude qualitative aspects altogether.
Experimental studies, which emerged in the 1980s, gained in popularity over the next two decades. This kind of research lends itself to analysis of causes because of the degree to which environmental variables are controlled. Experimental communication research is used, for example, when the effects of a potential campaign advertisement are tested in a laboratory setting.
The resurgence of qualitative methods. Significantly, in 2005 Graber and Smith wrote that the use of qualitative methods in political communication had been gaining some prominence:
Political communication research methods are diverse, mirroring practices in the social sciences and humanities. There have been some fluctuations in preferences for quantitative or qualitative methods. Proponents of quantitative methods have soared to the top, but qualitative methods have been making a comeback in recent years. (p. 491)
Qualitative Methods in Political Science Research
Evidence from a research methods textbook. In 2010 McNabb published a graduate-level textbook that covered political science research methods. The scope of the book included treatment of quantitative and qualitative methods. The author appropriately provided a chapter-long introduction to qualitative research. There he divided qualitative methods into three groups: explanatory, interpretive, and critical.
Explanatory research seeks to ascertain the causes of social phenomena, often with the goal of building a theory and/or providing a lead that other research studies may follow. By contrast, interpretive studies emphasize the researcher’s subjective role in making meaning of social events. Interpretive research necessarily goes beyond the descriptive and is context-laden. Finally, critical research critiques “harmful or alienating social conditions” (p. 231). This method has evolved from Marxian and Freudian traditions.
McNabb identified the most common qualitative research approaches as “case studies, grounded theory, ethnography, and action science” (p. 232). He emphasized that qualitative research relies on a variety of data-gathering methods: participation in the object of study; interviewing of individuals and groups; observation; and analysis of cultural artifacts, textual and otherwise.
Interestingly, the research approaches that McNabb described seem to be ill suited to the study of election campaigns in progress. Exploratory methods, including case studies and histories, are intrinsically past-focused. They can be used to study elections, but only in retrospect. Interpretive approaches such as grounded theory and ethnography would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement during the frenzy of an active campaign, but could prove useful in between such cycles. Finally, critical approaches (e.g., feminist research) might inform political strategy, but do not seem to fit the aims of guiding an election campaign. While one might expect that a political science research textbook would discuss qualitative methods used to aid the conduct of a campaign, this was not true of McNabb’s Research Methods for Political Science.
Evidence from other sources. A survey of other literature revealed that a variety of qualitative techniques are used in political research, though not all are necessarily applicable to the more restrictive realm of campaign research. Jencik (2011), cited earlier, mentioned ethnographic studies, phenomenological studies, case studies, focus groups, and intense interviews. Bennett (2011), also referenced above, listed ethnography, participant observation, focus groups, and case studies. The literature review process provided additional evidence that qualitative interviews are used in political science research. Specifically, several sources were found to have addressed particular aspects of elite interview techniques, including sampling, validity and reliability, and coding (Berry, 2002; Lilleker, 2003; Tansey, 2007). In addition, there is evidence of ongoing discussion of how to maximize the rigor of qualitative analysis of political documents (e.g., Wesley, 2010).
Qualitative Methods in Campaign Research
The evidence already cited has shown that qualitative methods are viable tools in the hands of political researchers. Indeed, during the course of searching for literature pertinent to campaign research, this writer encountered a substantial number of sources that employed qualitative methods in the study of political phenomena. These methods included focus groups (Gillespie, 2010), interviews (Plasser, 2000; Lees-Marshment & Marland, 2012), and content analysis of online social media (Fernandes, Giurcanu, Bowers, & Neely, 2010).
Political actors may benefit from studies of elections—both quantitative and qualitative—carried out in between active campaigns. In fact, the continuity of opinion-based policy development and message refinement has led several observers (e.g., Tenpas & McCann, 2007; Elmer, Langlois, & McKelvey, 2012) to speak of a permanent campaign. However, the application of qualitative methods to the study of election campaigns in progress seems to be much less common. Many qualitative methods probably take too long to execute to be very useful in campaign research. Nevertheless, the emergence of various forms of qualitative analysis software may make it more feasible to apply qualitative techniques during campaigns.
While many forms of qualitative research may not be particularly useful under the tight constraints of an election campaign, some techniques are useful. Indeed, as mentioned briefly in the introduction, the field of political marketing concerns itself with developing and applying appropriate strategies regardless of the timing—whether before, during, or following a campaign. This section will review five published sources that shed light on the use of qualitative methods in the realm of political marketing.
Types and uses of qualitative campaign research. In 1997 Marks published a brief article in Campaign, a British advertising and media trade publication. This piece stated that two types of qualitative research, focus groups and in-depth interviews, are relevant to political issues and personalities, and thus are most often to be used in connection with elections. According to Marks, qualitative research has three uses in a campaign: identifying an opponent’s weaknesses, assessing the communication of a campaign message, and eliciting constituent opinions to influence policy positions. The last of these is controversial in that it can seem to make politicians hostages of public opinion.
Political positioning in the United States and Britain. Nearly a decade later, Worcester and Baines (2006) described the processes of developing policy and managing communication with the electorate; unlike some authors, they regarded these to be distinct (and valid) spheres of action. In order to facilitate their discussion, they drew on two major case studies of market-oriented political triangulation: Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign in 1996 and MORI’s research on behalf of the British Labour Party over the course of six general elections.
They framed this sort of political activity as analogous to positioning in commercial marketing. However, in their judgment, political positioning differs from its business equivalent in that parties are more constrained by their past promises and actions. They spoke of the positioning process as aiming to establish and maintain “an emotional and intellectual connection with the electorate” (p. 15).
The authors made infrequent mention of qualitative research methods, usually defaulting to speak of polling or market research. However, qualitative methods were definitely in their frame of reference, and a few times they addressed them specifically. They definitely favored the use of qualitative methods in tandem with quantitative ones. Thus the two sets of methods may be employed to ascertain “why the public holds these views, and how they might be changed” (p. 22). Furthermore, one of their major propositions was that “qualitative and quantitative techniques are employed together to obtain the salient attributes of ideal political leadership and party image” (p. 27).
Market issues in political marketing. In 2009 Lees-Marshment, a significant scholarly voice in political marketing, published Political Marketing: Principles and Applications. The comments below are based on a portion entitled “Understanding the Market: Market Intelligence, Consultation and Participation.” This chapter covered such topics as segmenting and targeting the market, performing quantitative and qualitative research to understand market demands, and using intelligence to establish position within the marketplace.
Lees-Marshment was (and remains) quite favorable towards political marketing, as reflected in the following statement: “Political elites . . . need to understand what the market wants from them” (p. 82). She discussed appropriate uses of quantitative and qualitative research in political marketing research. Contrasting these two major approaches, she emphasized that qualitative research probes more deeply into the subject, aiming at understanding rather than measurement. She listed the following as examples of qualitative methods: “focus groups; semi- or unstructured in-depth interviews; projective techniques; word associations; and consumer drawings” (p. 85).
There are, of course, many other qualitative methods used in various disciplines, and even in other kinds of political science research. Presumably, then, Lees-Marshment intended to convey that these specific methods are used in political marketing research. Significantly, she provided substantive details about only one of the methods—focus groups, which seem to be the most established qualitative method employed in support of political campaigns. She described only briefly a method that she called consultation, describing it as distinct from polls and focus groups. As an example of this method, she cited the “Big Conversation,” an initiative launched in the U.K. in 2003, which drew more than 40,000 submissions from the public.
Lees-Marshment stated that “there are more examples of qualitative work from the U.K. than any other country” (p. 86), attributing this to the fact that qualitative researchers working in the U.K. have been most forward to publicize their experiences. This was an important observation, as it helps to explain the relative lack of sources that specifically describe the use of qualitative methods in U.S. elections.
Responses to criticisms of political marketing. Mortimore and Gill (2011) discussed the implementation of market-oriented politics in the U.K. context. Their essay responded to some of the reservations that academics, journalists, and even politicians have expressed regarding political marketing. They noted, for example, that voters tend to favor parties that respond to public opinion; that marketing efforts merely facilitate the inevitable evolution of political parties; and that politicians’ market-attentiveness does not relieve them of the responsibility to make decisions that are in the best interest of the populace, even against public opinion.
For the most part, the authors dealt with political marketing research as a category, and had little to say specifically about qualitative research as distinct from polls and other methods. Nevertheless, they did speak briefly regarding the conduct of focus groups, responding to a couple of key criticisms. They pointed out that while qualitative research took special prominence during New Labour’s emergence, it had been in use for decades. Also, while conceding that focus groups do not lead to scientific conclusions, they maintained that focus groups yield value for political decision-makers: “They offer a degree of insight which more structured polling does not into the way voters think and how they relate the various issues and circumstances to themselves, to each other and to the parties. They may be ‘unscientific,’ but politics remains an art and their value when used in conjunction with quantitative polling is considerable . . .” (pp. 251-252).
Political marketing in Canada. In an even more recent publication, Lees-Marshment and Marland (2012) provided the following characterization of political marketing:
Political marketing is a cross-disciplinary field that engages literature and practices in marketing, communication, and political science. It is foremost a philosophy characterized by an elite responsiveness to the political marketplace, such as by holding a market-orientation, by being in touch with the citizenry, and by reflecting public preferences . . . . Research intelligence gathered through opinion polling, focus groups, interviews, and even role playing is used to inform political communication, strategy, the political ‘product,’ the overall political brand, and tactical decisions such as positioning and opposition research.” (p. 334)
Lees-Marshment and Marland noted that American political marketing practices are being exported to other countries, but have achieved only modest success in countries with parliamentary governments. In addition, they portrayed Canadian political consultants as seeking to learn best practices from practitioners in other countries, including the United States. According to their research, Canadian consultants’ market intelligence repertoire went beyond opinion surveys to include focus groups, public consultations, and monitoring of blogs. Public opinion data—including those generated from focus groups—were recognized to have their limitations, requiring the interpretation of an artful expert. The authors referred to “the poll-driven route typically associated, fairly or not, with the United States,” contrasting this with Canadian practice, where “there is more of a merging of market demands and elite goals” (p. 341).
Focus Groups in Campaign Research
The case of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. As discussed above, focus groups have historically been the qualitative method most employed in campaign research. The use of qualitative methods, including focus groups, may be more developed—or at least better documented—in countries other than the United States. However, there are useful insights to be gleaned from sources such as Newman’s (1994) The Marketing of The President. This work described in accessible language the role that political marketing strategies, including various forms of research, played in Bill Clinton’s election as President of the United States in 1992.
Newman framed political marketing as a specialized form of service marketing: “When applying marketing to politics, the exchange process centers on a candidate who offers political leadership in exchange for a vote from the citizen” (p. 10). According to Newman, Clinton’s campaign used focus groups to great avail, but their popularity had been on the rise since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign. By their very definition, focus groups do not represent the population, but they serve very useful ends in tandem with quantitative methods such as polling. For example, they can help a candidate understand how people think about certain political issues; generate findings that, when joined with a candidate’s ideology, develop a political platform; and inform the crafting of messages for intended targets.
The case of the British Labour Party. In 2006 Wring published an article that traced the increasing use of focus groups in British politics, giving particular attention to the role that they played in the resurgence of the Labour Party in the 1990s. Wring cited formal uses of qualitative methods in election research dating back as far as 1964. Nevertheless, the use of qualitative methods—and especially focus groups—increased dramatically beginning in the 1980s, so that by the turn of the millennium, under Tony Blair’s administration, many observers had come to view them derisively. Indeed, Wring reported that Labour’s polling adviser, Phillip Gould, conducted 370 focus groups in connection with the 1997 election—both before and after the event.
Wring’s writing presumes some knowledge of the British political process, and it is impossible for an outsider such as this reviewer to achieve a full understanding of all that his article conveys. Nevertheless, it is interesting to observe that focus groups were not some sort of magic bullet. Labour conducted them for a number of years before achieving political success. Even when success was achieved, focus groups were only one of several contributing factors. Other factors included the improbable election of Bill Clinton in 1992; the death of Labour leader John Smith in 1994; and media coverage of Labour’s struggle to redefine itself. Furthermore, Wring maintained that focus group findings were used and leaked to the media selectively.
A critique of focus groups in political marketing. Savigny (2007) represents a cadre of thinkers who are more critical of the rise of political marketing. In her judgment, focus groups have been imported into political marketing uncritically from the realm of business marketing. In their political application, focus groups have attained the perception of yielding scientifically valid data. Furthermore, because of their supposed role in giving voice to the people, they are commonly regarded as an aid to democracy.
According to Savigny, some research practitioners—namely, those who favor positivist assumptions—have altered the philosophical foundations of focus groups in their attempt to vindicate them as a scientific method. Key modifications include the implementation of systematic procedures and the removal of the moderator as a subjective agent. By contrast, non-positivists tend to honor the original conception of focus groups as a qualitative method.
In the political realm, said Savigny, focus groups have been employed to predict and explain voter behavior. Focus groups have had an especially significant role in the rise of New Labour in British politics: “They were used extensively to plan electoral strategies, to assess the impact of party leadership and to test policy proposals” (p. 129). However, they have been conducted with significant moderator intervention—lending to the shaping of voter behavior and violating the claim of scientific inquiry.
According to Savigny, focus groups have played a significant symbolic role by embodying politicians’ claim to listen to the concerns of the electorate. In practice, though, the electorate as a whole has not been heard. Rather, swing voters in hotly contested geographic locations have been given the opportunity to be heard, while many segments of the electorate have been ignored. Thus focus groups may not have served the cause of democracy but that of the political machine.
The state of the art in political focus groups. In a recent article published in a political trade magazine, Stambaugh (2012) offered some useful insights regarding the use of focus groups in campaign research. According to one of Stambaugh’s interviewees, a Republican political marketer, the use of focus groups had declined in recent years. According to other authorities cited by Stambaugh, focus groups are subject to misuse in election research, in part because people tend to use them to achieve results that fit best with quantitative research. Uses of focus groups regarded as appropriate include testing potential advertisements and campaign materials, identifying the best textual and visual vehicles for communication, refining a campaign message over time, and assessing the efficacy of communication efforts.
Emerging Opportunities for Qualitative Methods in Campaign Research
As discussed above, though many qualitative methods are used in political science research, the demands of election campaigns make it impractical to employ techniques that cannot generate results quickly. Therefore, the evidence suggests that qualitative methods are used selectively in support of campaigns. Of all the various methods, focus groups appear to be chosen most frequently. However, the ongoing development of computer-based data analysis tools, combined with the proliferation of digital media, may make it feasible to apply interpretive methods to the analysis of election-related issues. The paragraphs that follow will delineate emerging opportunities, as implied by three recent studies.
The case of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Cogburn and Espinoza-Vasquez (2011) analyzed a large collection of documents and artifacts produced by Barack Obama’s campaign during the 2008 election, and by the Obama administration during the early part of his first term. They found that Obama’s team used social media and other innovative technologies to great effect, both in campaign and government activities. Ultimately, they argued “that the Obama ‘08 campaign ignited a new way to campaign for the presidency and elected public office not only in the United States but worldwide” (p. 192). The campaign strategy entailed pervasive use of social media and Web 2.0 technologies, not only to disseminate information, but also to gather data from potential voters and supporters.
The Obama campaign and administration clearly showed the capacity to perform quantitative analysis. Campaign operatives successfully mobilized activity on key fronts, geographic and otherwise, a task that would have been impossible without the management of a massive amount of closed-response data. Evidence of dexterity with qualitative data is more difficult to pinpoint, though there are some indications from Obama’s time in the White House that this may have been in place. Most notably, the administration has used social media sites to solicit public feedback on various issues, sometimes attracting hundreds of thousands of responses. The formality with which such feedback is analyzed is unknown, but elements necessary for qualitative research to occur appear to be in place, at least in primitive form.
The case of the Canadian federal leaders’ 2008 debate. In The Permanent Campaign: New Media, New Politics, Elmer, Langlois, and McKelvey (2012) analyzed political communication processes in the context of participatory media such as Facebook, YouTube, and the blogosphere. One of the chapters in this book reported a study of Twitter’s use as a vehicle for political exchange. The specific scene was the nationally televised Canadian federal leaders’ debate in 2008, when Twitter was in its infancy.
The authors conducted their study in collaboration with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Their study centered on the fact that, unlike other online media, Twitter messages are essentially ephemeral—destined to be displaced promptly by a newer post, and contingent on retweeting to be elevated once again to broad visibility. In their judgment, this aspect of Twitter communication required the development of new research methods focused on real-time exchange. Their study’s data consisted of hundreds of Twitter postings (including tags), supplemented by the textual transcript of the debate. Since both sources of data were time-stamped, it was possible to correlate Twitter activity with the statements made by the various debaters. The researchers monitored messages posted by a variety of stakeholders, including bloggers and other online activists, as well as official party spokespersons.
The data analysis included both quantitative and qualitative elements. Interestingly, the researchers monitored the accumulation of the data during the progress of the debate and were given the opportunity to share their findings with their CBC collaborators for dissemination during news coverage that followed the debate. Mid-debate analysis was able to identify the moment of the contest that generated the most reaction on Twitter. In addition, research conducted on the night of the debate quantified the extent to which Twitter posts mentioned the various candidates.
The authors also took up the analysis of their data in the months that followed the event. The removal of time constraints enabled them to achieve deeper insights regarding “the manner in which Twitter was used tactically by political parties, partisans, and other online viewers on the debate night” (p. 104). Significantly, they noted some of “the limitations of real-time research” (p. 105): the fact that analyses cannot be particularly deep; that they must proceed according to a predefined plan; and that they are contingent on the availability of multiple channels of comparative data. They concluded their report by observing that real-time research requires the development of innovative research methodologies.
New media in U.S. presidential campaigns. Towner and Dulio (2013) assessed the use and effects of new media in political marketing up through the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, and projecting out towards the 2012 campaign. Their analysis drew insights from a fairly extensive review of the literature (approximately 100 sources). They found that with each election cycle new media tools have become available, and that many stakeholders have attempted to use them to political advantage even though research-based understanding of them was still developing. Research on the effects of new media use during the 2008 campaign revealed mixed results, particularly in regards to mobilizing votes. Notwithstanding the emergence of new media, the aims of political marketing remained unchanged: to secure funding and increase contact with potential voters. Recent advances in communication technologies stood in succession to previous advances, such as “television advertising and survey research in the mid-1900s” (p. 109).
Significantly, the authors noted that some of the new media have the potential to provide two-way communication between campaigns and voters. If realized, this could lead to new opportunities for the application of research methods—including those of a qualitative sort—to the analysis of public opinion: “As new media continue to proliferate and alter the media environment, scholars must grapple with the new opportunities, directions, and challenges these changes bring to media research. Such concerns means that traditional research questions may need to be retested, expanded, tweaked, or even discarded” (pp. 113-114). They recommended further exploration into the use of new media by various stakeholders—not merely to know which ones adopt particular media, but to understand how they use them and whether they assist with recruitment of campaign resources and votes.
Towards the conclusion of their essay, Towner and Dulio observed that social media tools are in their infancy, much like television was in 1950. In their judgment, then, it is imperative for media scholars to formulate new methods of gathering, managing, and analyzing data. They are hopeful that the research process will lead to the development of findings and theories that effectively serve the ends of political marketing.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The discussion presented in the preceding pages has led to a series of findings regarding the use of qualitative techniques in elections. It has also revealed areas where further study would be beneficial. This section encapsulates both the key findings from the literature and directions for future research.
Qualitative methods are commonly used in political science research, and the frequency of their use may be on the rise. Nevertheless, there is a relative lack of published information documenting the use of qualitative techniques during active election campaigns. Selection of techniques for campaign research seems to be constrained by factors such as the need for very prompt generation of results.
A range of qualitative techniques are reportedly used in campaign research, but focus groups appear to be the most common. The use of focus groups in support of political campaigns is not without controversy—and indeed this is the case of political marketing more broadly.
There has been a recent shift towards the use of digital media as venues for political communication. This implies that research methods must adapt to reflect the reality of how people communicate. Studies published in the past few years show promising signs of potential for the qualitative analysis of digital data.
The paucity of published evidence concerning qualitative election research may be attributable to the presumed fact such methods are not heavily used in elections. However, there is likely an additional factor at work—namely, that the agents involved in non-academic political research do not want to sacrifice competitive advantage by sharing their techniques. Indeed, there are incentives for political actors (e.g., consultants, candidates, and party leaders) to refrain from publicizing details of qualitative techniques used in support of election campaigns.
Obviously, better documentation of the use of qualitative methods in election research is needed. Interviewing expert practitioners would theoretically produce the data needed to develop a more systematic understanding of the topic. However, this sort of research cannot be expected to proceed without obstacles—chiefly, the reluctance of elite actors to divulge sensitive information. Speaking generically of elite interviews in political research, Lilleker (2003) suggested that one may have to settle for engaging those who are no longer active in the field. However, even in such cases long-term loyalties or contractual confidentiality agreements may hinder the free flow of information.
As discussed in the body of the literature review, the use of techniques such as focus groups within the framework of political marketing has generated controversy, as represented by Savigny’s (2007) evaluation of the situation. While some practitioners (e.g., Mortimore & Gill, 2011) have responded in part to these criticisms, there remains a need to conduct further inquiry into the ways that focus groups impact democratic processes.
Finally, as implied by the results of recent studies, it would be advantageous to investigate the possibility of using qualitative techniques in election research, particularly where online social media and other digital data are available. If such techniques could be shown to deliver useful results on the kind of timetable permissible within a campaign, qualitative research could achieve a more prominent position within the field of political marketing.
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