Republican pollster Frank Luntz, president and founder of Luntz Global Partners, talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about his fascination with words and communication, who he thinks could win the GOP nomination, and whether he sees a female president in America’s future.
Frank Luntz has counseled the who’s who in politics and business—from presidents to prime ministers, Fortune 100 CEOs to non-profit organizations, and even professional sports franchises and Hollywood creative teams. He has been called the “maestro of messaging” for his work, which blends market research with language creation to deliver winning communication strategies. His focus groups have foretold the outcome of elections. And yet he remains humble. “I don’t really like to talk about what I do because I don’t learn anything from it,” Luntz says. “But I don’t mind talking about results.”
Luntz has had a lifelong fascination with the impact of words, visuals and presentations on the public’s mindset and behavior. “I can’t watch a press conference without critiquing the person being questioned or the questions themselves,” he explains. “I can’t watch a news broadcast without asking, ‘Is this the order I would’ve run the segments?’ or ‘How would I have done a different visual?’ Whenever I see a 30-second ad, I always ask myself, ‘Is that the right voice?’ and even when I stay in hotels I assess the front desk and the space in the elevator and watch everything because it’s how I’ve been trained. To me, everything at every moment of the day is a form of communication and I am always analyzing. I’ve never kept a journal or a diary. I throw my notes out 24 hours after I take them because I tend to look forward rather than backward.”
Opportunist: Frank, you have been called the heir apparent to the ‘father of public relations,’ Edward Bernays. Which accomplishment out of your entire body of work in this realm are you most proud of?
Frank Luntz: I really don’t know if I’m proud of anything because I’m always trying to do better. [Laughs] Today I look at language I worked on 10 years ago and think why didn’t I know better? or why didn’t I know more? I’m glad to have changed the term ‘estate tax’ to ‘death tax’ and ‘drilling for oil’ to ‘exploring for energy,’ although lots of energy companies have blown that in recent years because they’re not attuned to what their customers think.
I have seen people I respect very much get elected to office using language I have helped them work on, and I helped quite a few corporations and charitable organizations communicate effectively with the general public and their supporters.
My favorite client of all time is Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas impresario. What I’m probably most proud of was accurately predicting the 2000 election. I remember going on air that night with Brian Williams, of all people, and stating that George W. Bush would win because I thought he would win—and Florida was the specific state I identified. At 7:59 p.m. and 15 seconds Brian Williams said, ‘Frank, it looks like you got it wrong … it looks like Bush is going to lose … any comments?’ I gave my focus groups credit why Bush would win in the end. It was the most emotional night for me.
Opportunist: What must politicians and businesses do in today’s world to communicate effectively with the public?
Frank Luntz: Make an effort. Some don’t. Some say whatever they want to say without thinking how horribly it will be heard. Others talk without any emotion or connection to their audience and then they are surprised that people don’t regard them with respect. I believe the key is in the phrase I came up with 10 years ago: ‘It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what people hear.’
Frank Luntz: Yes, absolutely, but it may not be Hillary Clinton. You have to like your president and you have to trust your president, and there’s already a significant percentage of people who don’t trust her and who do not like her. I am absolutely convinced we will have a female president within the next three or four elections, and I still think Hillary Clinton is the frontrunner, but I’m definitely not convinced she will be the one.
Opportunist: Why? Do you feel she has been tarnished by the Benghazi attacks or Bill Clinton’s past behavior?
Frank Luntz: No. Americans have a short memory. We are very forgiving. But the way she has handled it keeps reminding people of what they don’t like and gives them no reason to forgive. If you apologize and ask for forgiveness people will generally forgive you, but she doesn’t know the meaning of the word. Watching her drives me crazy. She never looks people straight in the eye. She looks way up to the right and then way up to the left, then back up to the right and back down to the left again. It’s one of the worst public performances I’ve seen in the last 15 years. Whoever trained her in public relations should be fired and then sued for malpractice.
Opportunist: Do you believe former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush can win the GOP nomination? What about Marco Rubio and Rand Paul?
Frank Luntz: Rubio is the best communicator in the GOP right now and that’s because he talks about his personal story and he does sell in emotional terms. His story is compelling and the best articulation of the American Dream I’ve ever heard. The public is more focused on who the presidential candidate is than where they stand. That will change, but that is an advantage for Rubio.
Jeb Bush has the best résumé of any candidate. But I’m not convinced people vote based on résumé. Rand Paul is an example of a candidate with a very different demographic appeal. He does great among first- and second-time voters because of his ideological approach, but he doesn’t do nearly as well among senior citizens. And in the Republican primary, senior citizens matter a lot.
Opportunist: What are the essential ingredients of a successful political campaign?
Frank Luntz: What works in politics is almost identical to what works in corporate America. One, you should focus on your audience—their issues, their concerns, their priorities—because they are what matters. You have to connect your policies to their priorities, and you have to demonstrate that your background and experience is relevant to what matters to them. Two, what you say has to be memorable. And this is where so many candidates and businesses fail. You can’t say just anything and expect to be heard, let alone remembered. Three, the times determine the success. You can’t tell people things are good when it’s 1932. You can’t tell people the economy stinks when people are going back to work. You need to tailor your overall message to what’s happening in the world around you. National security wouldn’t have been an issue 40 years ago, but it’s a huge issue today.
Opportunist: How has politics, and especially the way in which messages are communicated, changed since you first began gauging public opinion?
Frank Luntz: The biggest change is the immediacy of it. Politics is now 24/7, 365 with no time off, no down time and no tomorrow. Everything has to be done immediately because opinions can be shaped with a single tweet, a single Facebook post or with one item in Google. All of that makes everything so much more difficult. And there are no gatekeepers, so you are now ‘prey’ to social media mobs. I’ve seen both the left and the right get destroyed when one of these mobs form. Twenty years ago everything was about what you said. Video is so much more important today. That’s how young people get their information. It’s no longer just the words you use—it’s what they see that has an impact on what they think.
Frank Luntz: Healthcare and being the first African American president. The tragedy is that he could have done so much to bring America together and not just obviously by race, but by gender and generation, and that has not happened. He brought a symbol of hope but we are now more negative, cynical, partisan and divided as a people than at any other time in my adult life. We are more divided now—on every possible schism—than we have ever been since the late-1960s and I think that will be a major part of his legacy. He had so much opportunity to do amazing things and he blew it.
Opportunist: Is there a solution to this disharmony?
Frank Luntz: There is no solution because we no longer have a universal source for news or information. So we don’t even agree on the same facts let alone the same solutions. It will take a commitment from business and political leaders and media and social leaders to reach out, talk to each other, listen to each other and try to work together.
Opportunist: Do you have any books in the works and, if so, can you tell us about them?
Frank Luntz: No, I will never write another book. Writing three books in five years is a lot of work and I never took time off. It was just physically and mentally horrible. I use my televised focus groups as a way to communicate what I’ve learned as well as interviews like this. I recently did an op-ed in the Washington Post. Instead of writing 100,000 words, I will write 850.
Opportunist: What’s next for you, Frank?
Frank Luntz: Flying from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., for 10 meetings in nine hours. I will get three hours of sleep, and I’ve got to visit seven cities in five days.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
Follow Frank Luntz on Twitter: @FrankLuntz