While hauling in the most votes ever for a Maryland governor, Larry Hogan had a secret weapon by his side: a focus group of 110 women who dislike President Donald Trump.
Hogan, a Republican who employed an experienced campaign team, was already well-regarded by voters in the largely Democratic state, but the focus group allowed him to pursue re-election strategies with an eye toward retaining women voters.
It paid off.
According to exit polling, Hogan won 50 percent of women voters in Maryland compared to 48 percent for his Democratic opponent, Ben Jealous.
The Hogan campaign discussed its use of the large focus group this week in debriefings with reporters.
“We used a panel of 110 women who liked the governor, despised Trump and were undecided about the race,” said Jim Barnett, Hogan’s campaign manager. The women in the focus group were registered Democrats or unaffiliated voters. “We talked to them over and over during the course of the campaign to see how they were reacting to advertising and how their attitudes were changing.”
The campaign asked the focus group — which was conducted by Christine Matthews of Bellwether Research and Consulting — how they felt about various ads and news developments. The women kept journals of how they were feeling about the race, and were surveyed frequently about developments. For instance, after hearing women in the group stress the importance of ending “educational inequality,” the campaign added that phrase to ads.
According to Barnett, one of the biggest moments for the focus group came when Jealous used profanity when responding to a Washington Post reporter’s question.
“That incident dominated what they thought about Ben Jealous,” Barnett said. “Even down to our final polling, it kept coming up.”
Veteran political strategist Russ Schriefer, who worked on the Hogan campaign, called the focus group the campaign’s “canary in the coal mine” that could alert them to political trouble.
“We were all nervous that women would say, ‘Gee, I like Hogan a lot but, man, I hate Donald Trump and I’m not voting for any Republicans this year,’ ” Schriefer said. “We wanted to engage with a group of voters who were most likely to have that sentiment. Most focus groups are too small. We wanted a larger one. I always felt if we were getting three out of 10 of them we were doing OK. They liked the fact he cut tolls. They liked the fact he wasn’t raising taxes.”
Campaign officials also discussed how they used Census and voter data to create profiles of individual swing voters to target them with ads.
“We modeled out the electorate,” Barnett said.
Doug Mayer, Hogan’s deputy campaign director, said the strategies they used wouldn’t have been effective if they hadn’t had a strong candidate to promote.
“All of the strategy was undergirded by the governor’s brand, record and personality,” he said. “Without that, we wouldn’t have been successful.”