Frank I. Luntz, 53, is a political and communications consultant, pollster and pundit. He is founder and president of Luntz Global and has homes in Virginia and Las Vegas.
How do you describe your work: public opinion guru, pollster … ?
I say I’m a word guy. And that always leads to, “Well, what does that mean?” I find the right words at the right time for the right reasons.
What are some examples you’re most proud of?
Moving “the estate tax” to “the death tax” had the biggest impact of any of them. But so much of what I do isn’t about a specific issue, it’s just how you communicate. It’s “opportunity scholarships” rather than “vouchers” in education. A voucher is a piece of paper; an opportunity scholarship is the future.
You’ve worked a lot with the GOP, and the Dems are courting you now.
They’re not courting me; it’s a conversation.
Okay, a conversation. So how do you choose whom you work with?
People think of me as political, but the truth is that 95 percent of my work has nothing to do with politics. I work for Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies, a ton of trade associations. I do a lot of sports work — and I enjoy that a lot more than politics because at the end of the sessions, if there’s a bar downstairs, people go out for a drink. At the end of my political sessions, people want to kill each other.
Has that changed over time?
Yes. I did my first focus group in 1988, and it’s become much uglier, much less tolerant of opposing points of view. We take things personally, and we assume that the other person isn’t just wrong, they’re evil. It’s been a struggle for me. If people are upset in my sessions, I get upset. I take on the persona of the people I’m asking questions of. The challenge for me now in these televised focus groups is to stop people from yelling at each other. They’ve heard it on talk radio, they’ve seen it on cable news. After my Fox sessions, if I don’t go out with colleagues or friends and decompress, I won’t sleep. I want to be doing things around happy people, not angry, divided people.
In some way, I’m as angry as the people I interview. But I can’t stand this intolerance. I can’t stand people who don’t want to hear the other point of view. Are we so right in our beliefs that we have nothing to learn from anybody else?
The candidate that I enjoy watching most right now is actually Bernie Sanders – and I don’t agree with anything he says. But he is touching part of my brain that normally doesn’t get touched. He is speaking a language that I’m not used to. People walk away from his sessions so energized and so enthused, and I like that. I so disagree with them, but I love their passion.
If you agreed on everything — would you throw your talents behind someone like that, rather than remaining dispassionate?
I did. In 1994. That was Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America. I was working 18-hour days, traveling seven days a week to attempt to get a Republican majority, which everybody said was impossible. I was 32 at the time. And that was everything in my life.
You are credited as key to that win, yet you’ve moved in a different direction these days.
And thank God I did. I never would have survived. I can’t process anger. I’m criticized and condemned by the left on the blogs, for negativity. That’s not what I do. I do words and causes for people that are right of center, but it’s to promote them rather than to bash the left. I would not have been able to function; I would have been dragged down. I wanted to be doing things around happy people, not angry, divided people.
What is your favorite part of the job now?
Attending a football game in the owner’s box. Actually knowing the game from the perspective of everyone from the commissioner to the fan — and everybody in between. I do an entire walk around the stadium. I watch people and I listen to the conversations.
It’s hard to tell, but I am extremely shy. If this were a social setting, I would retreat into the corner. But that’s what’s great about my job: I can ask anyone anything. I’ve gotten to know a number of well-known Hollywood personalities, a number of high-level sports people. I can’t ask them about the weather, I can’t engage them in small talk, but I can ask them, “Why on fourth and one did you kick instead of going for it?” That’s easy for me — because I am doing my job.
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