I did not actually sign anything prohibiting me from writing about my experience, though, I suppose that by participating I demonstrated consent to the statement that appeared in the initial e-mail I received from the Luntz group. Regardless, I don't intend to write anything that would discourage people from trusting the research conducted by Luntz nor to discourage people from participating in focus groups.
I took the train from Southeast (about 9 miles south of Pawling) direct to Grand Central Terminal. I could have taken the train directly from the Village of Pawling, but the Southeast station provides me a more flexible schedule. The travel time to Grand Central is about 1 hr. 15 min. It's a reasonably relaxing ride providing me time to do some reading -- at that time "God Is Not Great" by renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens. From Grand Central it was about 3 blocks west and 5 blocks north to Fox News studios (just west and south of Rockefeller Center). If you know NYC, then you know that these are long, very congested blocks. It probably only took me about 20 mins, but I was winded when I got to the studios. There's really no excuse for anyone working or living in Manhattan to be overweight or out of shape!
At the studio, after showing ID, I was whisked away with three other groupies who had arrived at the same time to a hallway several floors underground. There was set up a curtain partition behind which was a long table with folding chairs with several people sitting around it. There was a small (maybe 25") standard tv at the end tuned to the History Channel. There was a lunch selection of sandwiches and cookies. None of us had any idea what to expect. Many were wondering if this was where we were going to watch the debate.
After lunch we were handed some questionnaires to fill out asking us to rank the Republican candidates in many and various ways and then to do the same concerning some of the important and controversial issues at hand. Then we were taken upstairs, outside, across a plaza of sorts into another part of the building to the studio. This not very large room was, apparently, the set for a number of programs. There was a neon sign overhead that said "The Mike & Juliet Show". The backdrop was all Hannity & Colmes, though it was obvious that this was not their primary set. Frank Luntz the pollster was our host from this point on. Frank appears on Hannity & Colmes and other Fox News programs regularly. Frank welcomed us and explained what would be happening that day. One thing that would be unique for this focus group is that each of us (28 Republican voters, both conservative and moderate) would use a meter of sorts throughout the debate to register our real time approval or disapproval of what the candidate speaking was saying or doing. The results would appear as a graph on tv. Then he ran us through a test round of questions to demonstrate what we would be doing live immediately following the debate. The questions were provocative and generated a great deal of comments. One question was "How important is religious faith in making your decision to support a candidate?" A related question was raised concerning Mitt Romney and his Mormon faith -- was that an issue of concern? During this period I contributed a couple of times as this is a topic that I have some strong opinions about. Of course, the cameras were not rolling, live or tape, at that time.
Then we went live, still prior to the debate. Martha MacCullum, entered to anchor "Live Desk", a general Fox News live news program. She interviewed Frank who explained that our focus group would be watching the debate live and would be registering our real time opinion via the meters. The camera flashed to our group. Throughout the program the group's response - chuckling, groaning, etc. - could be heard in the background as they did not tell us to be silent.
We watched the debate in the same studio on a large (maybe 42") flat panel tv. The meters were interesting. After a candidate responded to a question and our group responded via the meters, a stage hand would yell out "Back to 50", meaning that we were supposed to return our meter dials back to a neutral position before the next candidate responded. It was funny that when Allan Keyes - who came off like a raving lunatic - spoke, and the stage hand yelled "Back to 50", everybody chuckled because nobody had really even moved their dials.
If you saw the debate then you no doubt observed two things: 1) The moderator was terrible -- she was combative and asked bad questions. 2) The debate overall was dull and rarely provocative. At the end of the debate, the first question that we were asked was "Who do you think won the debate?" Almost unanimously we said Mitt Romney. Now, at the beginning of the day, when asked how many supported Romney, only a few hands went up. But, clearly, in this particular debate, Mitt came off looking and sounding the best -- that does not mean that anyone changed their opinion concerning their support for Romney, only that he won that debate. Huckabee came into the debate the frontrunner, he had the most to lose or gain. Huckabee held his own, but Mitt came out looking and sounding better, more "Presidential". I was seen several times on camera during the live Q&A following the debate, but I did not say anything during this time. Because the debate was so dull and unprovocative -- they really did not address religion, Mormonism, illegal immigrants, or the war -- the Q&A was more focused on who looked and sounded the best, leadership, and a little bit on taxation and fiscal conservatism. These are not areas in which I really have strong opinions. Father Grams got himself on tv making a comment, though I can't remember on what point.
After the live segment, we taped about another 30 mins of Q&A that would be used on Hannity & Colmes that evening and other times throughout the following several days. During this time I did make a comment concerning the "Huckaboom" and Hucabee's potential to go all the way to the White House. I said something to the effect of this: "The 'Huckaboom' was really a media boom. Today we saw the real Huckabee. He simply doesn't have what it takes to go all the way." But I have never seen this aired.
At the end of it all we each were given $100 cash and sent on our way. All in all, it was an interesting experience and I would probably do it again some time. I was disappointed that we didn't get to meet Sean Hannity, though I had thought that would be unlikely since he was on the radio during most of that time.
To sum up where I'm at on the candidates: I hope and agree with Father Grams that John McCain makes a resurgence. He has the most experience, is a veteran politician with wartime experience, he has likely been the most consistent on his positions throughout his career, he is thoroughly pro-life, and he has a proven track-record of bipartisanship - for good or for bad. I think that, though not the best imaginable choice, he may be the best available choice for the time and situation in which our nation exists today. He has the strength, wisdom, and experience to face the difficulties of our world today, and he has the conciliatory ability to bring disparate factions together. He may not accomplish much during his presidency, and he may be a one-term president, but I think he may represent our best hope at bringing a little healing while remaining strong on defense. My 2 cents, and I'm allowed to flip-flop. I like a lot of what Fred Thompson has to say, but I am concerned about his experience and his intelligence/wisdom. Besides, I don't believe that he'll make it past New Hampshire. Huckabee, probably not. Romney, I like a lot of what he says, but I don't trust him -- not simply, but mostly(!), because he's a high-ranking Mormon, but because he comes off like a slick, polished salesman -- and because he's from Massachusetts. (The focus group mostly felt this way as well!)
Well, there you go - there's my recap. That's really all I care to write about it. It was interesting. It was fun. It was no big deal at all. Try it, if you get the chance. You only live once (this side of heaven).
I got back to Pawling around 7pm, just in time to pray Vespers at 7:30pm. I got a substitute to teach confirmation and missed choir practice. And that's my 15 minutes.