The Frank Luntz Effect

'Spraying perfume on dog turds'

Whether he eventually winds up backing a particular candidate or not, when the story of Election 2008 is told, Frank Luntz intends to have his name writ large over that history. These days, Luntz, a corporate and Republican Party political consultant/pollster, is all over the media; he’s running focus groups during many of the political debates where he declares winners and losers, he’s being quoted in various media outlets about all things political, and he’s a regular contributor to the Fox News Channel, where he pontificates at will.

In addition, he has given marketing advice to the BBC, political advice to British politicians, and was hired by Ireland’s RTE’s “The Week in Politics.”

While the televised Luntz often displays a disarming sense of humor and is reasonably affable and self-effacing, he is also self-righteous and an endless supplier of disingenuous blather. Watching him in action is to recognize a master of style over substance; emotion trumps fact.

Luntz earned his stripes by helping set the stage for the Republican Revolution of 1994 by co-authoring Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” Over the past dozen years, he helped keep the national debate over global warming in a holding pattern by counseling GOP candidates “to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue.” He advised the Bush Administration to use the term “climate change” instead of “global warming,” because it was less frightening.

Since that time Luntz has changed his position; last year he told the BBC that he had come to accept the scientific consensus on global warming:

Luntz: It’s now 2006. I think most people would conclude that there is global warming taking place and that the behavior of humans are (sic) affecting the climate.

BBC: But the administration has continued taking your advice. They’re still questioning the science.

Luntz: That’s up to the administration. I’m not the administration. What they want to do is their business. It has nothing to do with what I write. It has nothing to do with what I believe.

Samantha Bee of the Comedy Channel‘s “The Daily Show” once noted that Luntz had “made a brilliant career of Spraying perfume on dog turds.”

Media maven

When Karl Rove announced his resignation (as of August 31), Luntz pointed out that Rove “created an overarching political strategy that enabled the Republican Party to achieve tremendous national success for five years, beyond what it would have done, through his intellect, his knowledge and his discipline. He built a governing coalition that held until November 2006 when Democrats took control of Congress.”

Luntz added that Rove and Bush were “so intertwined that Rove’s resignation won’t have any impact on Bush’s popularity. Bush will rise or fall based on Iraq, not based on whether Karl Rove is working from D.C. or Texas.”

In recent months, Luntz has been quoted in London’s Telegraph about the chances of Britain’s new Prime Minister Gordon Brown being re-elected, and the effect that a withdrawal from the GOP presidential race by Sen. John McCain might have on that race, especially if McCain were to endorse former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.

In early July, Luntz told the New York Times that “The spouse of the candidate [in this case the so-called "trophy" wife of former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson, who is still waiting for the right moment to enter the GOP's presidential sweepstakes] matters in less than 1 out of 100 votes. It’s not relevant. It will have no impact whatsoever.”

Luntz reported to the BBC on the results of a U.S. national survey the British broadcasting network had commissioned him to perform regarding U.S. coverage of international news and whether cable subscribers would be interested in seeing BBC 24/7. (According to a report in the Baltimore Sun, “47 percent rated current U.S. coverage of international news as fair or poor. Almost two-thirds of cable subscribers said they would be interested in a 24-hour BBC channel.”)

On All-Star Tuesday in mid-July — the day of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game — Luntz hosted his annual All-Star gala at his home in Washington. Luntz, a bachelor, is “a collector of political, sports and pop-culture memorabilia,” McClatchy Newspapers reported. “Guests walking through his front door … will confront a collection that only a bachelor could display on every wall of a sprawling home.”

According to the Independent Luntz “organised televised focus groups of undecided voters to explore their opinions of party leaders such as Bertie Ahern, Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte in advance of the general election” in Ireland. He travelled to the country “with one assistant, from various locations in the United States on three occasions. The total cost of the flights, which were all either in business or first class, was £ 11,044. During his stay in Dublin, Mr Luntz was put up in the five-star Morrison Hotel at a cost of £ 195 a night.”

Luntz on Fox

Luntz is a regular political commentator on the Fox News Channel. On August 21, News Hounds (“We watch FOX so you don’t have to”) reported that the night before, Luntz was Hannity & Colmes’ “only guest last night … “to analyze the Democratic presidential candidates’ debate.” According to News Hounds, Luntz “took a swipe at Democrats by falsely claiming that Democratic primary voters are out of step with the rest of the country on the subject of diplomacy.”

During another recent sit down on the network’s “Hannity & Colmes” program, Luntz chatted about politics with co-host Sean Hannity, a conservative television personality who makes one yearn for the late great Joe Pyne, a pioneer of right wing hot-button talk television.

Hannity and Luntz got to talking about celebrity environmentalists who, while preaching conservation, were hypocritically jetting about the universe. In the conversation, Hannity appeared to coin a new buzz-phrase “Lear-jet liberals” — a takeoff on the old GOP tagline, “limousine liberals.” Luntz, ever appreciative of a new buzz phrase, was amused; he allowed that Hannity’s new phrase should be used by the GOP right on through Election 2008. They both had a good laugh.

Luntz’s unique affect was also on display during an appearance on the panel — along with comedian Paula Poundstone and author/activist Arianna Huffington — on a May edition of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.” The beauty of being a Maher panel member is that celebrity guests as well as conservative politicians and pundits can let their hair down.

On Maher’s show, the politically astute host referred to Luntz as a non-partisan pollster/political consultant. However, he also correctly pointed out that Luntz’s success as a consultant for the Republican Party was built in part on his having created a lexicon of words and phrases that, when strung together, successfully won voters to GOP candidates and causes.

At the Crooks and Liars blog, Nicole Belle described Luntz’s appearance succinctly: “Posing as a expert on winning elections, [he] g[a]ve advice to Democrats about winning elections by not being ‘angry.'”

Luntz recently participated in the Public Broadcasting Service’s coverage of the June 28 Democratic presidential forum, which was televised live and moderated by PBS host Tavis Smiley: “Immediate public feedback on the performance of the candidates will be conducted by noted pollster Frank Luntz, who will also appear on ‘Tavis Smiley’ on PBS the following evening to discuss his findings,” an early April PBS press release announced. What better man to gauge the reaction of Blacks to the Democratic field of candidates?

Dial technology

Luntz is all about emotion. During a focus group, visceral responses to political candidates or commercial products are measured by the use of “dial technology.” In a December 2003 interview with PBS’ Frontline, Luntz was asked about his use of “dial technology,” which was described by the interviewer as a “mechanism …whereby people in a focus group register their moment by moment responses to a speech or presentation.”

“Dial technology” is Luntz’s bread and butter; it is a perfect device for television’s need for immediacy. Luntz told Frontline that it was “like an X-ray that gets inside your head, and it picks out every single word, every single phrase [that you hear], and you know what works and what doesn’t. And you do it without the bias of a focus group. People are quiet as they’re listening, and they’re reacting anonymously. The key to dial technology is that it’s immediate, it’s specific, and it’s anonymous.”

Frontline: It’s so immediate, it feels instantaneous.

Luntz: But it is, because politics is instantaneous. Politics is gut; commercials are gut. You’re watching a great show on TV, you now come to that middle break, you decide in a matter of three seconds whether or not you’re going to a) flip the channel; b) get up; or c) keep watching. It’s not intellectual; it is gut.

“80 percent of our life is emotion, and only 20 percent is intellect. I am much more interested in how you feel than how you think,” Luntz told Frontline.

Words that work … regardless of their consequences

It appears that at this point in his career, Luntz would prefer the public feel he is someone who is above the fray: a measured voice of reason and a no-holds-barred equal opportunity pollster/pundit who tells it like it is. Luntz apparently would love to be seen as a savvy commentator dedicated to building civil discourse in this country.

The title of Luntz’s latest book — “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” — however, tells you all you need to know about the man. In a review of the book, the Guardian pointed out that “As a whole, the book retreads the author’s greatest hits, while implicitly blaming the Republicans’ 2006 electoral meltdown on the fact that they haven’t hired him recently.”

There is “a chapter about words that work in personal life, containing the advice that you should lie about a family illness or job interview in order to be allowed to board a plane when you’re late. As this shows, Luntz is glibly amoral, worrying only about whether language has the right effect, not whether it’s true.”

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column, "Conservative Watch," documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right. Read other articles by Bill, or visit Bill's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. gerald spezio said on August 31st, 2007 at 5:41am #

    Imagine what would happen if the stupid proles start framing, framing, framing to the pollsters? Or could they be framing, now? Worms, worms, pestilence, obfuscation, and perdition…

    Ya gota tell your lawyer and pollster (your betters) everything (the whole truth) including where you keepin’ the money at…

    Moreover, the stupid proles could hit the lottery and hire the Rubenstein peeyar people to help them publicize their suffering – get the message out, so to speak. And hire lawyer lobbyists too!

  2. gerald spezio said on August 31st, 2007 at 8:00am #

    Language and words condition behavior – that’s it. Everything is psychology, linguistics, and well – mental.
    What conditions the language and the words, you ask?

    Ethics, ethics, ethics. Ethics come from ( arise?) from ideas. Ideas are thoughts that arise (in the micro-tubules?). Jesus arising from the dead is an example of how ideas arise. Ideas arise and and take over everything. Thoughts, ideas, ethics – all come together in an “interpretive schema.”

    It’s similar to the spontaneous generation of maggots with some quantum physics thrown in for literary support.

    It’s lexical, mystical, and spiritual.

    Yabut, the words and the ethics behind the words still cause everything. But you absolutely can’t forget the ethics. Without the ethics, everything turns into a giant shitstorm – a tower of psychoBabel.
    Everybody bewildered and angry. Angry is big stupid.

    Ethics – the ideas and the thoughts – gets to the “root cause” of all the pestilence, stupidity, sin, and lack of community. It is the root causes that we are after, right? Social science, not sorcery and witchcraft.

    Keep looking for the causal ethics behind the words, and when you find them, you will know the “root causes.” because everything is mental.

  3. hp said on September 1st, 2007 at 11:26am #

    “Pontificates at will,” except of course, any pontificating which may be critical of Israel.

  4. gerald spezio said on September 2nd, 2007 at 5:56am #

    Gimme the words, boys. Rock my soul. I wanna get lost …

    Sing it to the proles, Frankie.