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Frank Luntz isn't a neutral pollster, but he does play one on TV. The cherubic Republican guru, who wears his orangish hair in a bowl haircut and seems to favor Gap clothing, is a regular on MSNBC, where he gauges instant responses from focus groups about the nation's political happenings.
Luntz broke into the households of America during the 2000 presidential election, when his supposedly nonpartisan polling on the cable network was at times criticized as shameless shilling for George W. Bush. But the GOP wunderkind, who is in his early 40s but looks younger, has been a major political player for more than a decade. He began his career as chair of Connecticut's Teen Age Republicans and, after receiving a doctorate from Oxford at age 25, helped formulate Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America." His real brilliance has been in crafting language that uses fear or coaxing to sway voters. Ever heard the president use the ominous term "death tax"? That's Luntz.
The self-described political geek has become a guru, living in the D.C. suburbs of Virginia but traveling around the world working his magic for MSNBC, corporations, and various GOP interests. During the past year, he's traipsed across the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Iraq. To prove he's been to the latter, he carries Saddam Hussein's head around with him. It's on a purple 100-dinar note that Luntz keeps in his wallet. It's a trophy; he helped engineer American support for the war, after all.
He was recently in Fort Lauderdale, which he believes will again be the hottest battleground in the presidential election this year. It's a perfect place to study the Democratic mind -- and then change it. "Southern Florida is the epicenter of the political conflict of 2004," he told me. "I'll be back here constantly until the election."
On April 14, I watched Luntz play with his latest group of political guinea pigs in a building off Cypress Creek Road. There were no television cameras; this was strictly a private affair. Luntz had been hired by a medical lobbying group called Doctors for Medical Liability Reform (DMLR) to hone the GOP attack strategy on medical malpractice reform. His mission: formulate the campaign to persuade voters -- and Congress -- to cap punitive damages on malpractice suits at $250,000.
It's an issue dear to the GOP's heart, but DMLR's advertisements in Washington state have been roundly criticized as misleading. The Seattle Post-Intelligencercalled the ads "outrageous" and pointed out that punitive damages aren't even allowed in the state. The Washington State Hospital Association contradicted DMLR's claim that trauma centers would close and emergency rooms would be "mothballed" because of high malpractice costs.
In Nevada, Luntz personally came under attack last year after conducting a controversial survey on malpractice. Luntz claimed that 200 doctors had left the state. A report by the legislature, however, contradicted his damning assertions. When questioned by reporters at a February 20, 2003, news conference, Luntz became so agitated that he "sprang up in his sneakers" and shouted, "That's bullshit -- I can't believe you asked that question," according to the Las Vegas Sun. The story ended with Luntz pronouncing, "I'm not wrong... I'm always right."
In Fort Lauderdale, Luntz and the DMLR were formulating their next move. He gathered 24 South Floridians in a windowless room that was equipped with a giant one-way mirror. Behind the mirror, I sat with a handful of DMLR-connected health care lobbyists, who had their notebooks out, ready to learn from the wizard. The focus group, which included one African-American, was split fairly evenly between men and women and ranged in age from about 24 to 45. Fourteen of them voted for Gore in 2000, while ten went with Bush. Luntz began by gauging the group's initial stance on malpractice caps. When he asked who "strongly supported" a $250,000 cap, nobody raised a hand.
"If you're going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, $250,000 isn't very much at all," said one middle-aged woman who might as well have been speaking for the group.
So Luntz had his work cut out for him. He gave group members hand-held dialers, which were connected to a computer and a video screen that hung in the room where I sat with the lobbyists. The dials could be turned from 0 to 100.
"If you totally agree, it's 100; if you totally disagree, it's zero," Luntz told the group. "You keep reacting, even mid-word."
From behind the mirror, we could now not only see and hear the group's reaction but we could watch what they were thinking. Sort of. On the video screen were two lines, one representing the Bush backers, the other, Gore voters. To test the technology, Luntz mentioned that traffic was terrible in South Florida. Both lines soared to 100. Then he said Floridians should be taxed $200 each to fix the problem. Both lines plummeted. It worked.
Luntz popped in a prepared video about the medical malpractice issue and left his subjects alone in the room to watch.
"Access to quality health care is a right, not a privilege," Luntz's project director, Benjamin Clarke, intoned earnestly on the video. "Unfortunately, America's personal-injury lawyers are threatening that right with frivolous lawsuits and courtroom antics."