This guest pollster contribution from Stan Greenberg is part of Pollster.com's week-long series on his new book, Dispatches from the War Room. Greenberg is chairman and CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.
Brian Schaffner focuses on the role of pollsters in identifying groups and thus empowering them -- making their opinions relevant to political leaders. I am very conscious of the role and as you correctly point out, I put the spotlight on Macomb County's "Reagan Democrats" and after this election, moved the spotlight next door to upscale suburban Oakland County.
What groups "matter" in my work is not some blind search of the data to find interesting and distinctive groups.
In the period when the wall between my academic and political lives was starting to crumble, I was very taken by E. E. Schattshneider's argument that whomever decides what the fights about likely wins. Successful political leaders and campaigns control the subject, define the choice and choose the fight. Drawing that line decides what issues are important and critically, who gets engaged and who loses interest. In 1992 Clinton made the election about change and the economy stupid and President Bush failed to make it about trust and experience. This year, Obama made it about change and Hillary Clinton tried unsuccessfully to make it about experience, but when she shifted to the economy and the middle class, she put the spotlight on white working class voters who rallied to her.
"Reagan Democrats" derived from the political project that tried to put the middle class back at the center of a renewed Democratic Party -- but the groups emerged from the project. In the book, I argue for the strength of these five leaders because they made politics purposeful.
Related to this point is David Moore's important discussion of "intensity" of beliefs and and the ability of leaders to get people to change their views on an issue and follow them. Whether a leader touches people, understands the times and poses a choice that impacts their lives impacts both which issues get highlighted and how intense are reactions.
I fully agree that mapping intensity will give you a much better view of public thinking and how issues are likely to break. But what is interesting about my Jerusalem example is that people held intense views (which I measured and monitored closely) when they rejected the idea of dividing Jerusalem, but shifted their views nonetheless once the public debate forced them to think about all the possibilities. This is a life and death and emotional issue and voters followed it very closely but Ehud Barak, like earlier Israeli leaders, was able to move the deliberation to a longer-term framework for preserving a Jewish state.
Focusing on intensity will help pollsters know which opinions really matter and difficult to move, and I did a lot of simulation in my polls to see how dynamic are opinions. But I'm still in awe of how much opinions shifted on such a central issue in such a short period and still learning from the fact.