The GOP's Brain
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-Intelligencer called 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."
The dials on both sides raised above the 70 line. The Bush voters generally were more enthusiastic, about five to ten points higher than Democrats. Luntz, who watched the reaction from behind the mirror, seemed pleased. "When it's over 70, it's a home run," he said.
Clarke kept laying it on thick about the "slow and insidious destruction of our legal system." Both lines stayed above 70.
"It's not about the facts," Luntz told us. "It's about emotion."
But then something happened that startled the lobbyists. When Clarke mentioned the $250,000 cap on punitive damages, both lines dropped like stones. There was an audible gasp in the room. Luntz coolly chomped on an ice cream bar and, when the video ended, went back to the group for response. The group generally agreed that lawyers were out of control and that it was a very bad thing that some doctors are leaving medicine because of malpractice insurance. But Ilana, the group's most liberal member, balked. "I don't think this is all the fault of the lawyers," she said. "There are problems with the whole system."
The Democratic point of view, of course, is that insurance companies are to blame. Luntz didn't bring up the merits of that argument, though he did at one point play devil's advocate.
"What is the hostility with this profession?" he asked the group about lawyers. "Why are you beating up this profession when it helps people?"
"They're scumbags," one woman replied.
Luntz popped in some DMLR commercials and returned to the lobbyists. "Do you see how strong this is?" he said as he entered the room. "I'm yelling at them [about attorneys], and they are telling me to fuck off!"
On the video, a nurse spoke of doctors fleeing the profession and abandoning patients because of malpractice costs. Both lines rise to about 80. "That's key," Luntz explained. "You start with protecting the patients."
After the commercials ended, Luntz returned to the group for more reaction. "I think you can't put a price on someone's handicap done by a negligent doctor," said Paula, a middle-aged woman.
"If a jury, say in Texas, were to award $80 million, you would still support it?" Luntz challenged her. "If you knew that it would cause hospitals in rural areas to shut down, would you still support no cap?"
Paula stuck to her guns.
Soon, Luntz was back with the lobbyists. "It's time to tear them down," he said.
Then he looked at me. "This will have to be off the record," he said.
I agreed, since it was either that or be shut out altogether. Suffice it to say that part of Luntz's method is to build support for his issue and then destroy it to see how strong it is.
The question, in the end, was whether he made any true believers of the $250,000 cap. Maybe a couple, if that. "It was all very one-sided," one group member, 31-year-old Carmine Accardi of Boca Raton, told me. A Gore voter, he termed himself a "weak" Democrat who leans to independent. "I'm in marketing, and I can make you believe anything I want you to with a montage of photographs. I still believe there shouldn't be a cap. It's up to a jury and a judge to decide."
But Luntz, who usually has a rather inscrutable little smile brewing on his face, was upbeat afterward. "This is a great political issue," he told me in the room behind the mirror. "There is a demon, and there is also an answer. Any Democrat who opposes this is very foolish."
I asked him if it was hard to act neutral on MSNBC. "I'm not a partisan -- my sole objective is to be correct," he told me. "As long as I'm accurate, I'm happy."
His accuracy and his neutrality, however, have been repeatedly questioned. During the 2000 election, for instance, his focus groups seemed strangely pro-Bush. After the second presidential debate, he told anchor Brian Williams: "We do have a clear winner. And you can all demonstrate by a show of your hands: How many of you believe that George Bush exceeded your expectations for what you expected this evening? Please raise your hands. Brian, that's almost everybody."
Notice the shift? He went from the notion that Bush had won the debate to the unrelated fact that the future president had exceeded expectations. Luntz was criticized by the American Association for Public Opinion for that one. The National Council on Public Polls wrote that a Luntz focus group "is more akin to a parlor game than a public opinion poll."
He preaches that emotion trumps fact -- and not just to lobbyists. In an influential memo he prepared two years ago for Republicans, he wrote, "A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth."
Such quotes are crucial if you want to understand the world according to Luntz. Truth is a malleable thing. You can change it by changing perception, usually through the use of emotion and fear. And when you change perception, that makes you right.
I asked him how often he is right.
"About 85 percent of the time," he said, "but it's really more than that."
A slight downgrade from his declaration of omniscience in Nevada. What about Iraq?
"I'm not going to talk about that right now," he said.
Looks like he really does hate to be wrong.
As he walked toward the darkened parking lot, I asked him if his work wasn't really about appealing to the worst in peoples' nature to persuade them. "My job is to educate people so they can make the best decision they can make," he answered.
I knew it was a stock line. But then his voice lowered a bit, as if he'd decided to level with me.
"Once there was a very attractive and well-known actress, an Oscar winner, who came up to me and said, 'Oh my God, you're evil. You're the nicest guy I've ever seen be so evil,'" he recounted.
"So I asked her what I could do to make her think I wasn't so evil. And she said, 'Switch sides and work for us. '"
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