Despite claims, Iowa State expert does not run focus groups

AP News
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Posted: Dec 16, 2016 12:39 PM

A prominent Iowa political scientist who goes by the nickname "Dr. Politics" has routinely made misleading claims suggesting he has gleaned unique political insight from a focus group, when he actually just discusses issues with acquaintances and contacts, The Associated Press has found.

Iowa State University professor Steffen Schmidt, who is frequently quoted about the Iowa caucuses and writes guest columns in Iowa's largest newspapers, has written repeatedly about how his focus group astutely informed his views on issues such as Hillary Clinton's emails, the fallout from overseas terrorist attacks and Democrats' struggles.

Pressed by the AP for details, Schmidt initially claimed his focus group consisted of 15 insightful, trusted acquaintances who helped him be "right more often than others." He reversed course this week after the AP requested their communications under the state's open-records law, saying he doesn't have any set panel. Instead, he said he refers to anyone he speaks with to inform his views as "my focus group," be they colleagues, students or fellow customers at the feed store.

"My columns are political commentary and I do not present them as formal research," said Schmidt, who recently conceded that the term focus group "may sound too formal to some of my critics."

Experts say Schmidt's use of the term is misleading and lends undue weight to his perspectives. In academia, studies that use focus groups are expected to be carefully designed to gain insight into public opinion and typically are monitored by an oversight panel.

"Likely the words 'focus group' sounded more respectable than just 'listening to a bunch of my friends'," said retired University of Minnesota professor Richard Krueger, co-author of "Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research." ''It is unfortunate that the professor chooses to use a misleading word for the research because this raises questions about the quality of the research."

The AP started looking into the issue Nov. 14, when Schmidt wrote in Iowa's second largest newspaper that Clinton's outreach to blacks, women and gays "was identified by my focus group as 'micro targeting' which alienated many voters who turned to vote for Donald Trump."

Schmidt explained then that he doesn't operate a research-based focus group, which are often used to gather feedback on political campaigns or commercial products. Instead, he claimed his group consists of five Democrats, five Republicans and five independents whom he emailed informally and confidentially, saying: "I trust their insights much more than the polls, which is why we have been right more often than others."

The AP requested Schmidt's emails with focus group members in the month before Trump's surprise election victory, which Schmidt has claimed he "always" predicted despite no proof in his columns supporting the assertion.

The university said it would take several hours — and cost the AP $210 — to sort through Schmidt's emails and find any potentially responsive documents since he has no set focus group.

In his book, Krueger outlines the best practices for focus group researchers to recruit participants, develop questions, and analyze results. He said Schmidt might have a smart group of friends, "but it should not be called a focus group."

It's perfectly acceptable to informally consult people for insight, but the term focus group "implies a different methodology" and shouldn't be used in this context, University of Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell said.

Focus group studies may need the approval of mandatory university boards that monitor research involving human subjects. Iowa State spokesman John McCarroll said its board had no role in Schmidt's work, saying that "mentioning focus group in a political commentary doesn't necessarily mean the author conducted research."

Schmidt, 73, has been one of ISU's most high-profile professors for decades and is often interviewed by media outlets about the Iowa caucuses, which kick off the presidential nominating process.

McCarroll said ISU administrators haven't expressed any concerns about Schmidt's writings. The university handbook says professors "should at all times be accurate" in public and notes that they can be disciplined for committing intentional misrepresentations.

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