When The Numbers Lie

Does the absence of reliable polling information leading up to the final hours of Election Day spell the end of conventional market research as we know it? We’ve learned the hard way that Americans lie about everything—their marital status, their weight, their income, and now, which candidate they just pulled the lever for.

Why did market research fail us once more? Let’s start with the widely acknowledged fact that most research samples are damaged, or at least skewed. It’s the old question of, Who do you know who makes time to answer “just a few simple questions” from a telephone interviewer? Add to that the fact that the questions were largely incapable of capturing answers that would have revealed America’s desire for continuity and post-9/11 conservatism.

I say it’s time to fire the statisticians and hire trendspotters to predict election results. It’s no news to anyone that the marketing industry is out of touch with the “average” American. We sure as hell don’t have offices in Ohio, Iowa, Nevada or most of the other battleground states, never mind the red states. Thus, our questions too often reveal insights that are a byproduct of the query rather than a genuine truth.

Three other things seemed lacking in the weeks before the election:

First, there was no real mechanism by which to quantify the youth vote, a much-hyped “trend” that fizzled into a faux fad, given the low turnout among the younger set.

Second, pollsters didn’t distinguish make-or-break issues—family, faith, security—from nice-to-haves like stem-cell research, healthcare, even jobs. Middle America is scared. And the fears are strong enough, and real enough in the minds of many voters, to outweigh other, “less immediate” concerns.

Third, analysts didn’t appreciate just how important brand essence is. The Bush brand is wholly consistent with, and consumable by, mainstream America. The kids are totally real and even kinda cool. The grandparents are, well, grandparents (even if Grandpa did rule the Oval Office once). Laura is nothing short of an archetype for the contemporary American female, humanizing the values of family and faith for a country that still prefers Father Knows Best to metrosexualmania. And the man himself? A pillar of strength, tempered with enough emotion and a kind of intellectual “simplicity” that feels familiar to many.

Kerry/Heinz-Kerry? He’s an accused “flip-flopper” who didn’t stumble in the debates, which struck some as less “human.” She’s rich, independent and foreign. Three strikes and you’re out?

Tuesday night, watching friends try to calculate how Cleveland could save Kerry, I realized something else: These very smart people were so focused on the details that they were missing patterns that had been emerging since mid-summer. This is what it boils down to: Americans are more comfortable with Laura Bush and her husband in the White House than they are with the notion of John Kerry and Teresa Heinz-Kerry moving in—and, God forbid, speaking French to the staff!

It doesn’t matter how most women feel about abortion or even Iraq. “W is for women” was the single most effective marketing strategy of the campaign. While the Democrats fumbled about, W created and captured the powerful niche of “security moms.” Diction aside, he managed to speak to women fluidly and powerfully, aided and abetted by powerful allies: Laura and her twins.

Bush never let us forget that he was the “known quantity.” Kerry was not only a brand change, but one most Americans could not process. Market researchers should have known that.