The Downballot: The inside scoop on focus groups (transcript)

Every political junkie consumes polls, but how much do you know about focus groups? We wanted to learn more—much more—about this critical campaign tool, so we invited Margie Omero of GBAO Strategies to join us on this week’s episode of The Downballot. Omero gets into the nitty-gritty to tell us how focus groups are actually convened, the best ways to moderate them, and what participants have been saying about abortion ever since the Dobbs decision. Those views were key to understanding why last year’s red wave narrative was flawed and shed light on what we can expect in 2024.

Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard also dissect the big new redistricting decision from New York’s top court, which just ordered the state to use a new congressional map next year. The Davids explain why the court ruled as it did and game out what might happen next. As with so much in New York politics, the picture is cloudy, but Democrats stand to benefit—though don’t expect an extreme gerrymander like the infamous “baconmander.”

Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

David Beard: Hello and welcome. I’m David Beard, contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections.

David Nir: And I’m David Nir, political director of Daily Kos. “The Downballot” is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency, from Senate to city council. Please subscribe to the Downballot on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review.

Beard: We got some big, big redistricting news this week.

Nir: We sure do. We are going to be talking all about the huge new ruling from New York’s top court that ordered the state to produce a new congressional map. And then we are going to talk about a blast from the very recent past that Ohio Republicans certainly would rather not have to deal with.

And then coming up in the second part of “The Downballot,” our guest is Margie Omero, a principal with the Democratic polling firm GBAO. We are going to get deep into the weeds, talking about an undercover topic and one of our favorite topics, focus groups, and what they have to tell us about the upcoming elections. Please stay with us.

The big one that we have been waiting for many, many months finally came on Tuesday night. New York’s top court said that the state has to draw a new congressional map for 2024. And I know a ton of folks are excited, but I am here, David Beard, to throw a little cold water on all of that.

Beard: No, you can’t do that. You just let me live here where we’re going to win every single New York congressional seat. We’re going to do a Bacon mander, I think is what it’s called. So you just go from New York City to the Canada border for every district. That’s what we’re going to do, right?

Nir: All right, fine. You’ve persuaded me. I’m no longer Debbie Downer. Bacon mander it is. Bacon mander, we’ll drop a link into the show notes, because it really was a seminal map drawn on the Swing State Project many, many years ago. But we have to deal in the world of real maps and so let’s talk about this ruling.

Beard: Fine.

Nir: Fine. Let’s talk about this ruling because it was pretty unusual. This was not a decision about the evils of gerrymandering. Instead, it turned on a really, really narrow issue, which was, as “Downballot” listeners know, New York had a court-drawn map used for last year’s congressional elections in 2022. And what the Court of Appeals — that’s New York’s highest court — said in a four to three majority, was that the map was only temporary. And this was the dispute between Democrats and Republicans. It was the dispute between the four-member majority and the three-member minority, whether that map should have been used for the rest of the decade or whether it should have been in place only for that one election.

And what the majority said, led by Chief Judge Rowan Wilson — who is the new chief judge on that court — is that the New York Constitution requires the state’s redistricting commission to draw a map, this is what voters approved, to amend the constitution. Therefore it is preferable, much more preferable, to have this commission, which is the creation of the state legislature, and the voters, actually create the maps, instead of some essentially unaccountable court.

The decision itself really involves a lot of technical language and parsing of grammar, statutory interpretation, and constitutional interpretation. But that ultimately is the reason why New York is going to have a new map.

Now, one thing we have to pause for, as a little aside, is why the court came to this decision. Why was it even able to? Well, we talked a lot on this show, Beard, about the change in the court’s composition. Last year when the court of appeals said “nuh-uh,” the Democrats in the legislature were not allowed to draw their own map, even though the commission failed in its duties. Now we have a totally different majority.

Because the conservative chief judge, DiFiore, resigned, kind of in the middle of a scandal, and she was replaced by Rowan Wilson, who I just mentioned. He was one of the dissenters in last year’s redistricting case, and he was nominated by Democratic governor Kathy Hochul. And Wilson’s spot was filled by attorney Caitlin Halligan, who full disclosure, I once worked for more than 20 years ago. Halligan recused herself from this case apparently because she knew one of the parties involved.

A judge from an intermediate appeals court was elevated to hear the case, and that judge sided with Wilson and two other judges on the court of appeals to find that, yeah, that map that the Court of Appeals insisted be put in place last year, no good any longer.

Beard: And of course, Caitlyn Halligan was only appointed to the court because Hector LaSalle, Governor Hochul’s previous nominee, was defeated thanks to a coalition of progressives who saw that he was way too conservative on any number of rulings.

Given sort of how we’ve seen these cases break down, how we’ve seen the division among judges up and down the New York judicial system, I think it’s a safe bet to think that he probably would’ve cited with the dissenters in this case. And so defeating LaSalle is what allows New York to now have a new map as we look to 2024.

Nir: Yeah. And organized labor played a huge role in that. It wasn’t just the usual lefty groups, as you’d like to remind us. When this whole thing was going down earlier this year, it was really this coalition of labor and lefties that tanked Hochul’s nomination of LaSalle. And thank God.

Beard: Yeah. In New York, the progressive movement is strong, but it’s not really capable of getting something across the finish line on its own. Often there are a lot of moderate to conservative Democrats who almost seem to enjoy being on the other side of an issue from progressives, so they need something more.

In this case, there was a really strong labor opposition to LaSalle due to a ruling that he had made previously. And that’s something that really can cause the Democratic Party to come together, and we saw that in this fight. And two, I think the benefit of the party in the long term.

Nir: Yeah, no kidding. And once again, what was Kathy Hochul thinking? She’s very lucky that her own party saved her from this debacle. Had this ruling gone the other way, a lot of folks would’ve been extremely upset.

So we should talk about what’s going to happen next. The court said, in Wilson’s opinion for the majority, that the Redistricting Commission must submit a new map to the legislature by February 28. If lawmakers reject this map, that’s when things start to get hazy.

Now, last time, the redistricting process went totally awry, because this is an evenly split bipartisan commission, and you need a bipartisan vote in order to advance a single map to the legislature. And that failed to happen last year. Instead, they sent two maps that got equal numbers of votes to the legislature, and the legislature rejected them both.

What the Commission failed to do was its duty under the Constitution, which was to try a second time. The State Constitution explicitly says if the legislature rejects the first attempt, the Commission has to try again. The Commission never tried again. And so the Democratic-run legislature stepped into the breach and said, “Well, we got to draw our own map. What else are we going to do?” And the court of appeals said, “No, you’re not allowed to. The Commission has to try again.” And they didn’t try again. What no one tried last year was to force the Commission to try again through the courts. And that’s exactly what’s happening now.

So there’s a very good chance that the Commission deadlocks, once again. Let’s say it doesn’t. Let’s say we’re living in bipartisan fantasy land. Or maybe the Republican commissioners compromise with the Democrats because they’re worried about giving too much power to the legislature. What happens then? Well, then lawmakers get a chance to either vote it up or down. It needs a two-thirds vote in order to pass.

If they reject the map, then things start to get hazy. This is in the scenario where the Commission actually settles on a single map. Lawmakers can amend the Commission’s map, but there is another statute, not part of the Constitution, just an ordinary state law from a decade ago that says that lawmakers can’t adjust any districts on any Commission map by more than 2% of the population. So that means you could only make small tweaks of the edges.

However, this is just a statute, and Democrats have a supermajority in both houses of the legislature. So they could amend or repeal this statute, thus giving them much greater freedom to change any Commission map.

But there’s another scenario that is even more bonkers, and that’s the deadlock again. If there is another deadlock and the Commission sends dueling maps, in fact, it could even send more than two, but let’s imagine that the Commission sends two maps to the legislature, then lawmakers can probably pick and choose. You could see a scenario where the Democratic commissioners pass a map that the legislature actually likes, and Democrats in the legislature decide, all right, we’re going to pass the Democratic one and reject the Republican one, and that’s that.

Beard: So suffice it to say there are a lot of different paths through the Commission and the legislature, but ultimately the Democrats have a lot of control over what the final maps look like, be that through the Commission or through the legislature tweaking the maps or through the legislature, drawing their own maps.

But ultimately, what’s probably going to constrain them the most is constitutional restrictions against partisan gerrymanders. That of course was a big problem with the previous map. Democrats went, not hog wild, but it was an aggressive gerrymander. And that is what the four members of the top court in New York ultimately objected to, and instead required a special master to draw those maps.

And so the Democrats are not going to want to face the risk of this getting struck down again, is the guess. And so they’re probably going to try to find a middle path between the maps that were actually enacted and the more aggressive gerrymander that they tried to pass, to make a number of these Republican-held seats more vulnerable to Democratic challenges, make them more favorable so that they’ll be a little bit easier of a pickup next year, without going to an extreme level to make them all just safe Democratic seats because that risks the map getting struck down.

Nir: Yeah. And like you pointed out Beard, that ruling striking down the previous map was done for two reasons. One, saying that the legislature didn’t have the power, and two, because it was a partisan gerrymander. Now, that four-member majority of course said that doesn’t exist anymore.

So I suspect that under Rowan Wilson’s court, the new chief judge’s court, it would police partisan gerrymandering somewhat less aggressively. But there definitely is a way to go too far here. And Democrats, I’m sure, are going to be mindful of that.

So I think that it’s easy to really get in the weeds. I know I totally did that in this segment. But in the end, I think you’re right Beard, that we see a somewhat improved map for Democrats, who already, by the way, have a great chance of picking up a number of seats in New York, even on the current map next year. But I think their odds are going to improve to a certain degree.

Beard: Yeah. I think had the map remained in place, Democrats definitely could have picked up three, four, or maybe even five seats on the old map. So I think on a newer map that’s more Democratic friendly, even if these seats aren’t safe, there’s a good chance that those pickups are going to become even better. This is great news because it counteracts the North Carolina gerrymander, where largely the reverse situation has taken place, where a neutral map was allowed to be replaced, thanks to the Republican North Carolina Supreme Court, into an aggressive — in North Carolina’s case — Republican gerrymander, because the North Carolina Supreme Court is just like, “You can do whatever you want. We don’t care. Gerrymander to your heart’s content.”

This obviously is not quite the case in New York, but they of course were very aggressive. There are probably at least three seats, maybe four, that are going to flip as a result of that gerrymander to the Republicans. And so New York helps to counteract that and helps keep the overall national picture not as tilted to Republicans as it would’ve been just after North Carolina.

Nir: Yeah, and I know this is super complicated. We’re dealing with a lot of hypotheticals here, but our Daily Kos Elections colleague, Stephen Wolf wrote a really excellent explainer about this entire process, so we will drop that in the show notes as well.

Beard: Yeah, and one last thing I want to say about this. The NRCC tweeted about this situation and said-

Nir: Oh, did they?

Beard: … “Instead of focusing on policies that appeal to voters, Democrats are trying to cheat their way to power.” And I would just like for the NRCC to send this tweet to the North Carolina Republican Party and see if they have any problems with the North Carolina Republican Party trying to “cheat their way to power”, because they’re a lot more aggressive with that map. They don’t have any trouble gerrymandering in North Carolina, gerrymandering in Florida, gerrymandering in Texas. All of a sudden you get to New York and the NRCC is like, “Wait, wait, you can’t gerrymander your way to power. That’s cheating. You should focus on policies that appeal to voters.” And as we all know in recent years, if there’s anything that the Republicans have done, it’s focused on policies that appeal to voters. So the amount of chutzpah to tweet that by the NRCC is just incredible.

Nir: Oh man, that just is pure projection. Well, the NRCC has a lot to say about New York’s maps, but I bet they don’t want to say a single thing about what is transpiring at Ohio’s 9th Congressional District because wow, it is the most pure flashback to 2022 that I think that we have yet encountered this cycle.

Beard: It’s a story that I equally can’t believe is real, and I’m not surprised by it at all somehow. But this of course was the district long time held by Democratic Representative Marcy Kaptur. The district was redistricted by Republicans pretty aggressively in 2022 to go after her; they made it much more Republican. She has a lot of appeal among voters there, so she was going to run a tough race and give it her all. And then she faced J.R Majewski, possibly the worst Republican candidate of 2022 and that is saying something. We all remember Blake Masters. We all remember Mastriano. There’s a long list, but he was right up there with the worst Republican candidates of 2022.

He was accused of stolen valor for saying that he served in Afghanistan when he did not. He was a big QAnon conspiracy theorist. The NRCC stopped running ads for him in the fall of 2022. So this was just a terrible candidate who you think you would never hear from again if you were a normal party. Now, of course, Majewski decides to run again. He then decides not to run again, but now he’s back in. Again, this guy’s not all there, but they’ve got a strong Republican candidate, a state representative who had lost to Majewski in the primary last cycle, but was running again.

Nir:

Well, how strong if he lost to Majewski last year, but at least a different dude, right?

Beard:

Yeah. He’s a state rep. He’s won an election. So that’s something. It is a Republican-leaning district, so it’s not like you need Susan Collins to win this district if you’re a Republican. But of course then Riedel, he did the unforgivable. Let me quote you what he was recorded saying, “Donald Trump, he’s a different person than me. I don’t like the way he communicates. I think he is arrogant. I don’t like the way he calls people names. I just don’t think that’s very becoming of a president.” Now, he didn’t criticize any of Donald Trump’s policies. He didn’t even say anything that disparaging, that lots of people wouldn’t agree with like, “Oh, Donald Trump is kind of mean to people. That’s why a lot of Republicans like him.”

But this was enough to start a firestorm, and so Republicans started jumping onto the Majewski bandwagon because this guy said something vaguely negative about Donald Trump. So two candidates for Ohio Senate against Sherrod Brown next year. They went and endorsed Majewski: Bernie Moreno and Frank LaRose. The sitting Senator J.D. Vance endorsed Majewski; Representative Max Miller switched his endorsement to Majewski after this and all of this to a terrible candidate. They are trying to get a terrible candidate nominated in this very competitive, very winnable seat because his opponent was mean about Donald Trump, which is just the craziest thing.

Nir: Maybe Ohio Republicans should just focus on policies that are popular with the American people.

Beard: Hey, I mean, the NRCC is apparently all about this new concept. Maybe they could spread it to some states beyond New York.

Nir: What must that be like at Republican HQ down in D.C. And this guy who you literally had to cut ties with because he was that toxic in a totally flippable district that you did your utmost to target in redistricting, and then he’s making a comeback from beyond the grave being supported by all levels of the Ohio Republican Party. I mean, did this seat just come off the map again? I mean, maybe not. Maybe that’s too much to say. Trump is almost certainly going to be on the ballot next year. Maybe schmucks like Majewski get carried along with Trump’s tide, and that knocks out even longtime incumbents like Kaptur. But man, this cannot feel good for them.

Beard: To be clear, this is not at all about trying to win this seat in 2024. It’s all about individual Republicans trying to stay on Donald Trump’s good side. That’s why Moreno and LaRose did this. They’re trying to win a Republican primary, and so all they care about is getting on Donald Trump’s good side because they know how powerful Trump’s endorsement can be in a Republican primary, and how criticism from Trump can be so damaging in a Republican primary. And of course, Vance has completely reinvented himself in past years to be the ultimate Trump acolyte. That’s how he became a senator himself. He is never going to step away from Trump and Trumpism, and so they would rather do this, stay on Trump’s good side and lose this seat than try to get the better candidate into the general election to try to defeat Marcy Kaptur, which is great for Marcy Kaptur.

Nir: And great for the Democratic Party and the good old USA. Well, that does it for our weekly hits. Coming up, we have a terrific interview with Margie Omero, who is a principal at the Democratic polling firm GBAO. She’s going to tell us all about working with some of the top campaigns of 2022 and how she sees 2024 unfolding. Stay with us after the break.

We are very pleased to have with us on “The Downballot” this week, Margie Omero, who is a principal at the Democratic polling firm GBAO, and she most recently was involved with three of the top races of 2022, the successful reelection campaigns of Kansas Governor Laura Kelly and Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, as well as John Fetterman’s huge win in the Pennsylvania Senate race. Margie, thank you for coming on the show with us today.

Margie Omero: Thank you so much for having me.

Nir: So last year, of course, lots of folks, especially folks who don’t work on campaigns, were worried about a red wave. But what was it like actually down in the trenches? Did this sort of thinking affect campaign strategy, whether for some of those high-profile races I mentioned, or any other campaigns you’d like to talk about, or did things really look different on the inside?

Omero: Well, I think you have a lot of inputs, I guess I should say, when you’re working on a campaign, right? Because obviously, people are following the public polling like crazy. You have lots of armchair polling experts, folks who follow public polls, who look at all the aggregators. I think there’s a kind of trope about Democrats worrying about everything, which is not… I don’t want to say it’s untrue. There’s some truth to that for sure. But I think there were some dubious polls that would inflame the red wave narrative. And I think that that was part of what was happening, and that was kind of easy to spot. You saw some polls that didn’t really make sense. They weren’t connected to other things that you were seeing. They were outliers and they were changing the averages, and if you were just inputting all the public polls and averaging them, obviously those kinds of polls would change the average.

But here’s what we heard a lot of, and it’s not just… I mean, you had a very kind introduction. We had a full team, the full GBAO team that worked on all these races. We were named Pollster of the Year for 2022, and Democratic Pollster of the Year for all our body of work, and it really was a full team effort of my great colleagues. But we heard in focus groups and saw in surveys some really key differences from kind of the red wave narrative. And that was really about abortion — and as well about democracy, but really about abortion. It’s not just like the Supreme Court or one specific state trigger law. It was really about feeling the impact that these immediate bans were having, and we heard it very, very personally in a lot of states. We conducted… I felt like I personally moderated over a hundred focus groups during the last cycle.

I’m not sure what the final number was, but I could tell you what I heard pretty clearly in focus groups around the country with every audience, no matter the state. And that was a real personal connection and fear of the Dobbs decision and the impact of the Dobbs decision on people’s lives and what that meant for abortion rights. It wasn’t just like this political discussion around abortion rights.

People were telling us about their miscarriages, about having to drive a friend to another state. There were men who spoke about thinking about leaving the state because their wife was going to have a high-risk pregnancy if they tried to expand their family and they wanted to live in a state where she would have more medical options available to her. We had men talk about their relationships and abortion stories from their youth; we had people talk about assault.

We had regularly people cry in focus groups talking about what they had gone through and the impact of these bans. This was not just a political issue that’s now receded after 22. This is something that people were feeling very immediately and they were shocked by the decision. And so we heard that, and it was very much at odds with the narrative of a red wave, the narrative of people who were not thinking about abortion anymore in the fall.

There was this talk of that, and there’s been talk since the election like, “Well, maybe it’s not going to be an issue going forward.” And that’s just not really borne out by what we’ve heard in focus groups around the country where people really are just outraged. We have heard very little from people saying, “Thank goodness there’s a total ban in my state. Thank goodness we’re preventing people from leaving the state if they have an emergency. Thank goodness this is happening. I’m so relieved. This is what I’ve always wanted.” We haven’t been hearing that.

Beard: So one of my theories about sort of the situation around reproductive rights post-Dobbs is that there is a lack of trust among voters for what Republicans will do. And what we saw of course in Virginia this year is that they tried to pitch this sort of compromise legislation. “Oh, 15 weeks, that’s fine. We’re being generous, I guess, to women by just doing a 15-week ban instead of something else.” But I feel like we didn’t really see that work. Republicans haven’t really found a solution to this problem. I want to see if that’s how it seems in focus groups. Do people have a lack of trust in Republicans to do anything around abortion policy in the wake of Dobbs?

Omero: Yeah. People see very clearly the differences between the two parties. I mean, I’m old enough to remember when people didn’t really see a difference between the two parties. People say, “Well, they’re both the same. They’re all the same. I can’t really tell them apart in terms of issues, and I’m not really sure which party is pro-choice or pro-life, or which party is this or that.”

We don’t really see that anymore, so people don’t really see that Republicans are trustworthy on this because they see that that’s the party behind these abortion bans. And you can tell that Republicans feel uncomfortable talking about this issue that they created for themselves, this political problem and actual life problem that they created for themselves because they’re not actually spending a lot of money behind it on television.

And that was something, if you look at all the public analysis of television ads, you’ll see that on the Republican side, there was very little about abortion. And when people were talking about abortion, it was to try to reassure people and say, “Well, I’m not really like these other Republicans. I’m some different kind of Republican,” and that’s just not going to be good enough for folks who are feeling the impact right this minute, and hearing some really extreme and seeing these really extreme impact. Again, it’s not theoretical. You don’t need to be listening to “The Downballot” or reading Politico to know what is happening about this because people are feeling it in their daily lives.

Nir: You mentioned something interesting a few minutes ago about having a lot of inputs on the campaign and having lots of sources of data, many of which we simply lack here in the outside world, for lack of a better term. And you talked obviously about focus groups. Of course, you have access to polling, I’m sure much higher quality polling and more frequent polling than we see publicly. In particular, I remember in the Kansas governor’s race, there was almost no public polling. It felt, as analysts, like we were flying blind. And I imagine as well, you have reports from folks who are knocking on doors, whether it’s staffers or volunteers, or the candidates themselves.

So you’re getting all of this data and you suggested that it was coming in at odds with a lot of the Red Wave narrative. Since 2022, the new Democratic freak-out… and yes, you’re absolutely right about the Democratic tendency to panic… of course, has been about the Biden polling versus Trump. And I’m wondering in what you’ve seen so far in 2023, if you’ve seen any sort of similar disconnect? One thing we’ve talked about a lot on “The Downballot” is special elections, which are sending a very different message from what we’re seeing from these polls, especially these national polls. So I’m curious to know if you’re seeing a divergence between the public data and perhaps the broader universe of stuff you have access to.

Omero: As a pollster, I can tell you there are lots of things to look at besides polling. So in those midterm elections, for example, you’re looking at what is the other candidate doing. Are they releasing their own polls that show them in some really strong position? If they’re not, then that’s important. How do people respond to them? In focus groups, we’ve tested Republican… Their own ads and their own video in focus groups, and people will say, “I don’t like that guy. He looks like a jerk,” watching the thing that they put out themselves.

And so that’s qualitative rather than quantitative, but those are just additional inputs. Or when you have something that you’ve seen is the strongest contrast with your opponent and they don’t respond to it and they don’t address it, then those are all signs that there’s something going on where you have an advantage over the other side.

So those are the kinds of inputs that are qualitative as well as quantitative. Those are obviously things like, where are newspapers? Where are electeds? Where is the institution? In Kansas, you had every former Republican governor except for Sam Brownback standing with Laura Kelly. That’s a clear sign, including people and the elected officials who actually had worked with the Republican candidate and had been his boss, who had endorsed us. So those are signs that you have some things going your way.

Now looking at ’23, there are a couple of things that people should take a look at. One is, what have we seen in the elections, actual elections so far this year? The two that I would really call attention to, but there have been others, and I’m sure your listeners can point to others in cities and counties around the country, will be the Wisconsin Supreme Court race where we worked with the table, the group of people who are supporting Janet Protasiewicz, who won that election really decisively where abortion was really part of that conversation. That was a very clear sign that the Democratic side and the side in favor of abortion rights felt animated and motivated to vote.

And then in Ohio, a more Republican state than Wisconsin, there have been two different votes, one in August that was designed to make it harder for a ballot measure to pass, to try to set up a threshold that would make it harder for an abortion rights ballot measure to pass in November, which was the second ballot. Both those things went in favor, very decisively, for abortion rights supporters.

So people did not want to vote to make that hurdle higher, and then they voted very clearly to say, “We support abortion rights,” even though that first vote was in August, which is kind of a low… August of an odd year is not typically where people are really motivated to vote, but they were here. And so these are signs that Democrats are engaged. And one thing that we put on our surveys, you don’t always see it on public polls, we ask people how motivated they are.

How motivated are you to vote in the election? Not how excited or enthusiastic, which sounds like you’re happy, and we’re just saying motivated. So you could be motivated by a lot of things. Doesn’t have to mean you’re excited, like you’re going to a birthday party kind of excited. But motivated, meaning this is really, really important.

And we’ve seen in some of these elections that Democrats are particularly motivated, and then we saw a real shift in motivation after the Dobbs decision, where polls taken before showed Republicans with a slight edge, and then polls taken after showed Democrats with an advantage. That hasn’t really changed since then.

So that’s something that I would… For folks who are watching polls to look and see if pollsters are adding that or talking about that, and to see how that changes by party. It’s going to fluctuate a little bit. The differences aren’t going to be major. I don’t want to overstate because lots of people are going to say they’re motivated to vote, but if that advantage is consistently in the Democratic direction, that’s a sign that Democrats are stronger.

Beard: Now, we don’t dwell a lot on the presidency at “The Downballot.” That’s in the name, of course. We want to focus on other races. But as we’ve mentioned, there’s been a ton of talk about the Biden-Trump numbers, and so the general dip that some of the public polling has seen in the past couple of months. But I want to intersect it with this abortion discussion. We obviously haven’t had a presidential election since the opposition came down. 2024 is going to be the first one.

I don’t feel like people connect abortion and Biden very much right now. It’s been a lot of state-level conversations and elections for obvious reasons because those have been the elections that people have been working on. But in a lot of your focus groups, when abortion comes up in the context of the presidential election, do people think of Trump as the person who created the Dobbs decision? Do they see Biden as the way to protect abortion rights? Does that start to sway their votes as that comes up?

Omero: People are now paying attention to all the different ways that you can discuss the abortion rights debate. Before Dobbs, it was much harder to really alert people to the looming threat of what was clearly about to happen on the Supreme Court. That was something that took a couple of steps for folks to engage with that. You had to think through the new members and these new justices on the Supreme Court, what kind of law you had in your state and when that would go into effect, or what would happen next. That’s a complicated conversation.

We don’t need to have that conversation now. People know; they got it. They know exactly what the ramifications have been, and they do see Trump as responsible. And not only that, I think it’s important to talk about what happens next. And that’s not just about state legislatures, it’s also about a national ban coming from a Republican.

They’ve been trying to get themselves out of this mess that they created for themselves, and so they have their state debates and conversations. But then you had Lindsey Graham, like the middle of the midterm, say, “Let’s have a national abortion ban. That’ll give everybody some compromise,” which obviously is at odds with what they said the whole point was of this exercise, which is to send it back to the states. They were saying, “Look, maybe we don’t want to send it back to the states. Maybe we want to keep it here, and we are going to have this national abortion ban that Republicans said that they agreed with, or at any rate would be part of that team that would support a national abortion ban.” So I think that it’s essential that we remind people of that, because it’s not theoretical anymore, it’s really happening. And it’s very important when you’re talking about congressional races or downballot races in states where there is a culture of protecting abortion rights, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a threat from a national abortion ban.

Nir: So we have talked a lot about focus groups, but if there’s one thing that even a lot of seasoned political professionals don’t have a lot of knowledge about and a lot of insight into, it’s focus groups. I certainly have never participated in one, or observed one, so I would love for you to tell “Downballot” listeners really how focus groups work. And honestly, the weedier, the better. We really love hearing about the nitty-gritty. How do you go about finding folks? How do you decide which demographics you want to target? How do you get people talking in a group setting? And what kind of surprises, what things about focus groups that the public probably doesn’t know about might they be interested in hearing?

Omero: I could definitely get in the weeds on this. I love doing focus groups. I’ve been doing this job for about 25 years, and when I first started, it was my first job out of college. I immediately looked at focus groups and I was like, I want to moderate focus groups. And I tried to moderate focus groups really as early as I could, because I knew it’d be something that I really enjoyed, and I’ve only grown to enjoy it more over the last few years where I’ve gotten to do some really very interesting in-depth focus groups.

There are a couple of things that I think folks might find interesting. One is there are focus group facilities in a lot of major markets or in suburbs of major markets, and they all have recruiters. And so if you were doing a focus group about toothpaste or golf… I’ve done focus groups about breakfast; I’ve done focus groups about pets. So then you’re on the list. A recruiter called you and you’re on some list of pet owners or toothpaste buyers or what have you, and then you’re in their database.

And then they may call you again and say, “Would you like to talk to Margie about abortion?” They don’t phrase it that way, but then they call you for something else. And so you want people who do this only, not very frequently, but they assess or amass a database of thousands and thousands of people in an area and then they use that as a foundation. Now, on top of that, there are ways to use social media or other kinds of advertising to recruit people for focus groups who fit our criteria.

And for political groups, the criteria can really be very specific. We don’t want… a lot of times, sometimes we want to talk to base voters; sometimes we want to talk to swing voters. There are not that many different kinds of swing voters or not that many people undecided in some of these big races, so we need to make sure we’re talking to people who we want to learn from and not have a group of people who are not available or absolutely going to be with us if we want to figure out how to move the middle.

So we ask a few questions of folks as they get through the recruiting process, how they’re going to vote, how they voted last time, how motivated, did they vote, what are their top issues, just so we have a sense of what’s their party identification or ideology, just we have a sense of who they are. And then we assemble a group of people who fit the profile that we’re looking for.

It’s not like Real Housewives or something where we spend months producing them and talking to them in advance to make sure they’re going to say what we want them to say. We trust that they’re going to come in and we want to hear their unvarnished thoughts on our questions. They don’t know what we’re talking about. They don’t know what the subject is going to be. They don’t know any information about the sponsor.

They come into the room and we ask them questions starting from the big picture broadly, what’s going on in your area today? And moving to something more specific. Here’s some messaging about different candidates, or about this issue. What do you think? What stood out? What’s confusing? And we’ve moved obviously a lot of these online from the pandemic where, well, it used to be … We only did these in person. Now, we do them maybe 30%, 20% in person and the rest online in a Zoom situation, which is good because then you can reach people who live in rural areas who may not live near a focus group facility, or live near a major media market or are in different time zones in different parts of the country, and they can all kind of talk together.

It’s really a great way to hear how people process conversations and process the news and use their own words. They’re not using the words of a survey question that we wrote in advance. They are answering in their own way. And in some of the focus groups we’ve had to do for The New York Times, or for AARP, or for Navigator, at other outlets, we are asking people further … Really personal stories, like what is happening with you? How are things going for you? We asked people on AARP, how … And we talk to women over 50. How is your life compared to how you expected it would be? What’s going well for you personally right now? And in those groups, in a lot of groups, people get very emotional talking about some of these topics. It’s not simply like, “Here, watch all these ads.” They really can get very personal and it’s something that has been noticeable in its change over the last couple of years.

For me, it’s really affected me as a moderator to hear people well up pretty regularly, thinking about how divided we are as a country, or the pressure of the pandemic, or discomfort with their family and family situation over a whole host, health or whatever, a variety of issues. And people really want to be heard and want someone to listen to them. And that’s what I see as my job as a focus group moderator. It’s very different from a survey, which I also love, but that’s much more quantitative. And you’re looking at spreadsheets and you’re looking at big differences and small differences. The results are really … You don’t see anybody’s faces, you don’t even see their names. When you’re looking at the results in a focus group, you’re really able to have real conversations with people. And that’s something that I find really rewarding and I think respondents often do as well.

Beard: I absolutely love that answer. That was fascinating. I feel like I learned so much from that. That’s exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to hear.

Omero: I should tell people for listeners, that you can be part of a focus group facility, its database, that’s something you can do. It doesn’t have to be politics. They may call you for who knows what. The one thing I would note is that there have been a lot of in-person focus group facilities that have closed during the pandemic. That’s something that a lot of people … That’s just a challenge facing the industry if you want to know, kind of, really get in the weeds with this. So it really has changed the way we have thought about how we do focus groups and we often have to go to a hotel, or you have a back room, or you have a camera, and from one hotel ballroom versus the other, observer room. So there’s also some other ways that we’ve had to kind of accommodate all the challenges that have happened.

Beard: One thing I always find interesting about these small group settings is obviously people’s personalities can play a really strong role with them. And let’s say, I don’t know exactly how big these focus groups tend to be, but I’m imagining eight to ten people somewhere in that vague range. And so you’re probably going to have some people who are pretty outgoing, pretty talkative, and then some people who are pretty introverted. Do you have some work that you do as the moderator to bring out those more introverted people — those people who tend to be quieter — because I assume you want to hear from them just as much as the more extroverted folks?

Omero: It’s a good question and it is something that I’m trained to do and then have developed some tools over the years just kind of trial and error. And so the first is you want to set everybody’s expectations at the beginning of the group. And you tell people, I say some of you are talkative folks and some of you are quiet folks. And you know who you are right now and I’m going to find out who’s who in about 10 minutes. So if you’re talkative, I’m going to call on other people. And if you’re quiet, I’m going to call on you. They’re ready. They know if they’re talkative or if they’re quiet, they already know that. I’m talkative, I know that, right? And other people, they know where they are, so they’re not surprised, or insulted because I prepare them. If I tell them we need to move on to the next topic, or if I say, “Okay, I’m going to call you quickly, tell me quickly your answer to that.”

They know, they’ve been prepared. In an in-person group, that’s even easier because I can just point at someone, or another tool I’ve started to do, especially online, is that I say, “I’m going to raise my hand when it’s time to move on.” So it’s like I’m giving them the wrap-it-up signal but in a more gentle way. And so that’s a little bit easier online than interrupting somebody because sometimes Zoom can be more complicated. So these are just ways I try to make sure that people are aware that I’m going to move on.

I’ve also started saying often in these groups, people tell me some really personal stories and I appreciate them and I love hearing them, but I don’t always have the time for them that your story deserves just because we have a finite amount of time. So I prepare people for that just because the number of really personal stories people tell me has been increasing.

So I feel like I need to prepare people. You won’t have 15 minutes for your story. I’ll have to stop you. And so then they remember that if I have to do that later during the group, so there’s just some different tools. But the folks who try to dominate the group, they’re prepared and sometimes they respond well to somebody kind of pushing them a little bit saying like, “Look, I know, but you know I got to hear from other people.” Their response is a little bit more ribbing, I guess. Gentle ribbing.

But there is a funny story. This is a very long time ago, and I was much younger and I had someone, it was a male client who wanted to hire me, and he said, “How are you able to moderate a room full of men?” I’m like, “The same way, what are you talking about?” And then I got hired. We had a focus group and it was a room full of men.

And then there was this really very dominant guy who wanted to talk over, and I was so quick because I knew that there were like 10 also men behind the mirror that I felt like I had to really go for it to get this guy under control because I thought, “Oh, they’re waiting for this moment.” And I’m like, “Listen.” I had to really stop him, probably overdid it, but he was also fine. He was completely prepared for it because again, he knew how he was. So you don’t want to overdo it, I should say, but it’s not a problem. I did focus groups with men, or I did focus groups with the New York Times. The most nerve-wracking was doing teens and college students and 11 to 14-year-olds.

Beard: Oh, boy.

Omero: I’m like, “I don’t know anything about who these influencers are.” I was just worried they were going to stump me on TikTok, or something, but it was not like that. It was fine. I thought I could like, “And you could just cram TikTok in a couple of weeks before. And I’ll be ready to go.” But there’s no briefing book for your TikTok group, but it worked out okay.

Beard: That would have made me terribly nervous too. So one last topic before we let you go. Obviously, you were a longtime host of a podcast yourself. You co-hosted a podcast called The Pollsters for a number of years. What was that experience like? What did you take from that, from doing this more public facing role versus your internal campaign work and focus group work?

Omero: I loved it. I loved The Pollsters. We did it for five years. I did it with Kristen Soltis Anderson who’s a Republican pollster, and we were friendly. We had seen each other at things beforehand, but then I realized now this is the olden times of podcasting, and I guess this was like 2015. And I approached her, I said there wasn’t a single polling podcast at that time, and there was no podcast as far as I could tell of two women, one Democrat, one Republican. And by the time I got to the end of that sentence, she was like, “Okay, we’re doing it.” I’m like, “Right. So that’s going to be us.” Like, “That’s it.”

And we had really a great time and we still work together. We worked together on the AARP work. We worked together on The New York Times work. I saw her last weekend, we’re still friendly and friends. And so it was really been a joy to work with her and collaborate with her.

And I really did love being able to dig deep in all the public polling. It was great. I got to know all the polling outlets, their cadence, the things they worked on, what their crosstabs looked like, who ran it, and how they approached their work. I really got to learn about the public-facing side of the industry in a way that was really useful, and how people wrote questions and how the questions would compare. It is different than the main part of my job now, which is doing polling for clients.

And sometimes, or most of the time, that work is proprietary. It’s not something that you can just share on a weekly podcast. So being able to kind of speak about what’s out there in the polling world is sometimes at odds with keeping your clients’ polling proprietary. So there was that. So that is one of the challenges of having a podcast and having a client work. At the same time, it really provided a lot of insight and connection to folks, in a way that was really invaluable. Five years is a fantastic run in the podcasting world.

Beard: Absolutely. We have been talking with Margie Omero, a principal at the Democratic polling firm GBAO. Margie, before we let you go, please let our listeners know where they can find you on social media and where they can learn more about your work.

Omero: So I am @MargieOmero on X, M-A-R-G-I-E-O-M-E-R-O. My firm is there too, GBAO Strategies. And we both X out things from time to time. I’m on some of the other platforms, whether it’s IG or Bluesky, but I’m still trying to find exactly what’s the right home for what I have to say is obviously an evolving question for us all.

Beard: Indeed, it is. Margie, thank you so much for coming onto “The Downballot” today.

Omero: Thank you.

Beard: That’s all from us this week. Thanks to Margie Omero for joining us. “The Downballot” comes out every Thursday, everywhere you’re listening to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing thedownballot@dailykos.com. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcast and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our editor Trever Jones, and we’ll be back next week with a new episode.

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