Pollster Luntz Inspires Love-Hate Sentiments

Posted June 21, 2004 at 6:50pm

If you want to understand the love-hate relationship between the House Republican Conference and GOP pollster Frank Luntz, talk to Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio).

At a Republican retreat in the mid-1990s, Pryce was talking to Marianne Gingrich, the wife at the time of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), about a personal matter when Luntz came up and brusquely interrupted their private conversation.

“I thought I’d never talk to him again,” Pryce said.

The Ohio lawmaker recounted this story last week, just two days after Luntz had given a briefing to GOP Members at the invitation of the Republican Conference, which Pryce chairs.

Pryce is one of many GOP lawmakers who have had run-ins with Luntz or fielded complaints about him and yet continue to seek out his advice on messaging.

“Some people love him and some people just don’t like his approach,” said Pryce, adding that Luntz’s strong personality shouldn’t prevent Republicans from listening to his presentations, which focus heavily on the effective use of political language.

“If you can abide the messenger, the message is helpful,” she said.

Luntz, who did not return a call seeking comment for this story, has had a long and tumultuous relationship with House Republicans that dates back to before the party took control of the chamber in 1994.

Luntz played a part in crafting the Contract With America that helped the GOP come to power, yet his exact role in that effort remains the subject of debate.

In more recent years, he has prompted some private grumbling over his apparent straddling of various D.C. lines of demarcation, working for MSNBC and nonpartisan corporate clients while still offering his advice — sometimes unsolicited — to House and Senate Republicans as well as the White House.

Currently, Luntz heads the Alexandria, Va.-based Luntz Research Companies, offering polling, focus group research and strategic consulting services.

In the House, where Luntz typically addresses Republican gatherings a few times a year, opinions of the consultant divide along a number of complicated lines.

At the highest level, several leadership sources confirmed that Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and his office are not fans of Luntz or his work, while Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) has hired him in the past and is an eager customer for Luntz’s research.

Among rank-and-file GOP lawmakers, some will make a point of skipping out early on Luntz’s Conference sessions while others will go out of their way to attend (several dozen sat in on last week’s gathering).

At the unelected level, many aides grumble that Luntz dazzles their bosses simply by telling them the obvious — that language matters and that Republicans should play to their strengths.

“The Members love him and the staff hate him,” a leadership aide suggested.

The perception of arrogance is what turns some Members and aides off about Luntz, though that trait bothers some Republicans more than others.

“He’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” Pryce said. “He doesn’t always show the deference to Members some Members prefer.”

Yet to Luntz’s supporters, that trademark bluntness is part of what makes him an effective and sought-out operative.

“A large part of Frank’s appeal is that he’ll tell it like it is,” suggested a leadership aide. “If there’s such thing as a ‘shock pollster,’ he’s it. People want to see something more than an academic or … emotionless numbers.”

A senior Republican lawmaker had a more straightforward explanation for why Luntz’s sessions are well-attended.

“It’s free stuff,” said the lawmaker, adding that the relationship was mutually beneficial because after seeing Luntz’s presentations, “some [Members] become true believers and hire him, and some refer him” to other campaigns.

More so than most pollsters, Luntz employs a considerable amount of showmanship in presenting his material to Congressional audiences. He typically will use the results of focus groups to suggest the most effective specific words Members should use.

Luntz also employs a variety of media, showing campaign ads or political speeches to focus groups and then asking them for instant positive or negative reactions.

At last week’s session, for example, Luntz started off by discussing homeland security and how Members should frame terrorism and security issues. He then screened some recent Kerry campaign ads and assessed their merits, as well as those of three different ads on the recently unveiled prescription drug discount card.

Attendees also received Luntz memos on three different topics: outsourcing, terrorism and tort reform.

While in the past Luntz had addressed the Conference at its regular weekly meeting, Pryce decided to make the most recent session voluntary so that lawmakers could choose whether to attend and how long to stay.

“What’s best for everyone is to have a separate gathering,” said Conference spokesman Greg Crist. “It’s incumbent on the Members to filter what they want and what they choose to use and what’s applicable to their district.”