Focus Grouping War with Iran

A recent Virginia focus group test-marketed language to get tougher on Iran. UPDATED.

| Mon Nov. 19, 2007 4:00 AM EST

The following article is an updated and revised version of a piece first posted on November 19, 2007. That piece misidentified Freedom's Watch as the sponsor of the focus group described below. We regret the error.

Laura Sonnenmark is a focus group regular. "I've been asked to talk about orange juice, cell phone service, furniture," the Fairfax County, Virginia-based children's book author and Democratic Party volunteer says. But when she was called by a focus group organizer for a prospective assignment earlier this month, she was told the questions this time would be about something "political."

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On November 1, she went to the offices of Martin Focus Groups in Alexandria, Virginia, knowing she would be paid $150 for two hours of her time. After joining a half dozen other women in a conference room, she discovered that she had been called in for what seemed an unusual assignment: to help test-market language that could be used to sell military action against Iran to the American public. "The whole basis of the whole thing was, 'we're going to go into Iran and what do we have to do to get you guys to along with it?" says Sonnenmark, 49.

Soon after the leader of the focus group began the discussion, according to Sonnenmark, he directed the conversation toward recent tensions between Iran and the United States. "He was asking questions about [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad going to speak at Columbia University, how terrible it was that he was able to go to Columbia and was invited," Sonnenmark says. "And he used lots of catch phrases, like 'victory' and 'failure is not an option.'"

According to Sonnenmark, two fliers distributed at the focus group session bore the logo and name of Freedom's Watch, a high-powered, well-connected group of hawks. This summer, Freedom's Watch launched a $15 million ad campaign to support the escalation of troops in Iraq. It counts former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and former deputy assistant to President Bush Bradley A. Blakeman among its leaders.

The first flier handed to the group bearing Freedom's Watch's logo, Sonnenmark recalls, raised questions about Ahmadinejad's recent appearance at Columbia University. The second one was also related to Iran. Sonnenmark assumed Freedom's Watch had arranged for the session.

And the upshot of this focus group? "After two hours, [the leader] asked three final questions," Sonnenmark recalls: "How would you feel if Hillary [Clinton] bombed Iran? How would you feel if George Bush bombed Iran? And how would you feel if Israel bombed Iran?" Sonnenmark says she responded, "It would depend on the circumstances....What is the situation in Iraq? Do we have international support?"

When asked by Mother Jones about this focus group, Freedom's Watch spokesman Matt David responded, "As a general policy we won't comment on our internal strategy." And an employee at Martin Focus Groups who only gave his name as Steve declined to say anything about the session. (In 2003, Steve Weachter, the manager of the firm's Alexandria offices, told a local Virginia newspaper, "We help whoever calls. It could be about cigarette smoking, drinking, whatever. We could even have a group to evaluate Pepsi one day and Coke the next." In the same article Donna Carter, the assistant manager at Martin, recalled the time the outfit was conducting a Republican focus group in one room and a Democratic group in another.)

After an earlier version of this story attributing the focus group to Freedom's Watch was posted, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the founder and president of the Israel Project, contacted Mother Jones and said that her group had commissioned the focus group and that it was designed by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm. The Israel Project is a nonprofit group that supports Israel and conducts extensive polling on American public attitudes toward Israel and the Middle East. Its board of advisers includes 15 Democratic and Republican members of the House and the Senate, plus actor Ron Silver.

Mizrahi says that her group and Freedom's Watch share a common interest in "thwarting the threat of Islamic extremism" and in "dealing with the threat of Iran." But Freedom's Watch "in no way is directing our work, and it's not funding our work." She pointed out that the Israel Project is not "involved with Iraq," a major concern of Freedom's Watch. But the two outfits, she said, "shared information" produced by this focus group. She insisted the focus group was designed to help the Israel Project promote "our belief in pushing sanctions." She added, "We're working day and night to persuade people the options [concerning Iran] are very limited. We're pushing really aggressively on the economic and diplomatic fronts."

Mizrahi confirmed that Freedom's Watch material was distributed to members of the focus group but insisted that ads from "lots of other groups" were handed out. "We test a lot of messages," she said.

"Of all the focus groups I've ever been to," Sonnenmark wrote in a subsequent email to a group of fellow volunteers for the 2006 Senate campaign of Jim Webb, "I've never seen a moderator who was so persistent in manipulating and leading the participants." (Webb is lead author of a Senate letter warning President Bush not to attack Iran without congressional approval; see here and here.)) The gist of the event was "anti-Iranian," says Sonnenmark.

If the group's organizers were testing the case for military action against Iran—even as a last resort—Sonnenmark believes they could not have been encouraged by the results of this focus group. "I got the general feeling that George Bush didn't have a shot in hell" of winning public support for an Iran attack, she says. Some members of her group suggested that if Hillary Clinton were elected president she might have more credibility in making such a case. As for the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, Sonnenmark's impression was that the group's members did not believe it was up to them to judge.

Sonnenmark left the session wondering if foreign policy hawks would soon be pushing publicly for military action against Iran using language that had been tested on her. But, she says, "It is not going to be so easy this time around."

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