Frank Luntz is Right.

Jon Isaacs

A few years back, a massive talking points guide for GOP candidates written by Republican Political Consultant, Frank Luntz was leaked on to the internet and made the rounds on the liberal blog-o-sphere. It produced an explosion of progressive blogger venom about how Luntz is an evil evil man who should be destroyed immediately. Now, let me just say this up front – when it comes to the policy direction our country should take – I disagree with Luntz on just about everything. He is a partisan Republican operative who helped Newt Gingrich develop the “Contract on America.” Enough said.

However, when it comes to winning political strategy I think one of the best things that happened for Democrats in 2006 was that the Republican political establishment decided to stop listening to Luntz. He gets it and we should listen to him. Not about policy but about smart politics.

In a fascinating column that appeared in the Sunday, Feb. 25th Washington Post Luntz laid out his case for why the Republicans tanked in 2006 and why they are still stuck in the 20’s and 30’s in national polls. If you want to know why Democrats won and Republicans lost just read his column. He gets it.

The truth is the Democratic wave in 2006 was produced by two factors. First, a huge majority of non-partisan independents decided they’d had it with the Republicans and they were going to vote for Democrats (Luntz still calls these “Perot voters”. Washington County, for example, is loaded with them). Second, Democrats were just slightly more energized than Republicans. Both were important, and the key now for Democrats is to deliver for both groups. This sounds tricky, but it's really not that tough.

Case in point – the agenda being pushed by the new Democratic Leadership in the Oregon House. New Speaker Jeff Merkley and Majority Leader Dave Hunt have done a great job so far of sticking to the list of common sense issues that their candidates (over a dozen newly elected legislators I might add) talked about during the campaign. It’s been a topic here before and is worth bringing up again in this context – The Roadmap for Oregon’s Future is that agenda. I’ve seen groans and sighs here on Blue Oregon and other blogs about this list of proposals being unexciting or incomplete. In fact, the Roadmap is a perfect example of the kinds of policies that are going to keep Democrats in control of government at all levels, making a real difference, for years to come. I like to call these "duh" proposals.

The Roadmap is a list of "Duh" proposals. These are ideas that matter deeply to non-partisan independents and base Democrats alike. Frankly, a nice chunk of Republicans like these ideas as well. They are common sense ideas that solve problems regular Oregonians want government to fix. I mean how silly do the House Republicans look right now siding with the tobacco industry over children’s health care or voting the party line to kill a rainy day fund? I wouldn’t want to be running for re-election in 2008 with those votes on my record.

Candidates who I’ve helped have often heard me say, “that passes the duh test” or “that fails the duh test.” The duh test should be applied to every policy proposal. If it passes it is usually in line with what regular people –who could care less which party is in control – believe our political leaders should spend their time working on. Luntz is essentially advising the GOP to get back to ideas that pass the duh test. Democrats need to continue to do the same. Applying the duh test doesn’t mean selling ourselves and our beliefs short or failing to take on big challenges. The great thing is that the list of great progressive ideas that pass the duh test is already long and growing.

Should we raise the tobacco tax to make sure every child has health care in Oregon? Duh.
Should we keep the corporate kicker and dedicate the funds to a rainy day fund? Duh.
Should we invest in renewable energy and clean fuel? Duh.
Should we create a teacher health insurance pool to lower costs and save taxpayers money? Duh.

Now, you try it......

  • (Show?)

    Luntz's research methodology is sound. He is disengenuous when he claims not to be partisan. We should freely use what he's learned, but to more noble and not Orwellian aims.

    The easy ability to be on the side of regular Oregonians and Americans is the direct result of the years of Republican rule by a "majority of the majority" -- in other words, a distinct minority. As it happens, a radical minority who almost doesn't share traditional American values (Habeous corpus, don't torture people, balance the budget, war as a last resort, separation of powers, ...). Common sense things that the majority of Americans want have been held back because Republicans vote their party line and not their conscience.

    It has been a Fautian bargain, one they appeared prepared to keep based on the first two months of the new sessions. And now everyone sees that Democrats aren't the boogie-man they've been made out to be.

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    Also, my favorite comment from Luntz's article was: "As a pollster, I rarely hear voters call for smaller government. They tell me that they want more efficient and more effective government."

    This is a huge opening for progressives and Democrats everywhere. One of the progressive core principles is "Responsible Government in the Common Interest". Time to build on that.

    Ask people, how does smaller government and lower taxes address global warming? how does smaller government and lower taxes resolve our healthcare crisis? how does small government and lower taxes deal with causes of globalized terrorism? etc.

    They don't. These aren't answers, they are dogmatic ideology disconnected from the challenges we face.

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    Great point. That's why the Bus Project has that quote about not bigger government, not smaller government, but better government. With a few alterations it won an award at the DNC national convention in 2004.

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    Let me add to the Luntz-love. I'm about 75% through his book, Words That Work. There's a ton of really valuable advice and I recommend it to everyone, even if some of the policies he espouses make you squirm.

  • pedro (unverified)

    i have admit to having a soft spot for luntz--he exudes confidence, gives a charming interview and is mostly right .

    i know people always say they want efficient and more effective government, and that may be what candidates should offer, but nothing scares me more than the prospect of a truly efficient government. think about it; the federal government was streamlined and running in total efficiency between roughly 9/12/2001 and the social security smackdown of 2005. however all these effeciencies were focused on doctored intelligence, poorly planned wars and no bid contracts for halliburton. the only way it could have been more efficient is if bush got to be the unitary executive he so wanted to be.

    i'll opt for the more elusive better government,and cross my fingers.

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    Great post Jon. I had one up here on paying attention to Luntz in April of '06.

    Hopefully a few more people will pay attention to the idea of learning from the successful pros hearing it from a successful pro. You did a really great job at FuturePAC and I wish you the best of luck going forward.


    Good point on the Oregon Leg also. We really need to track all of the good stuff being done in Salem, prior to screaming about our various laundry lists, if we want to consolidate our gains from the last election cycle.

    Progressive Oregon groups that I work with are too often sending out emails and alarms about what we need to tell the electeds. Only ROP so far, has been putting out attaboys on specific progressive legislation that is already in the works. We need more of that.

  • Josh Balloch (unverified)


    Why do you think the Rs are fighting nearly everything on Oregon's "duh test?"

    Is it that they have just lost their way or do you see a bigger strategy here?

  • Bill R. (unverified)

    Whether it's Frank Luntz on the right or George Lakoff on the left, the problem here is that we have a pre-rational and mostly unconscious electorate. The Repug program has faltered not because of poor marketing, or ineffective manipulation of words and talking points, but their policies have failed and are bringing ruin to the the U.S. and to the world. You can't run away from failure. You can try to spin it, or evade it, but "the rain falls on the just and unjust." The consequences of failure have created an opportunity for Democrats. The national party Democrats are under the sway of the political consultants who have helped create the current political culture of cynicism and failure. Hence they are cowards and fail to recognize the present opportunity and meet it with boldness and new direction. Forget these marketing and manipulation specialists and speak plainly about what is going on and where we need to go!

  • Michael Arrington (unverified)

    Bill, one of the issues seems to me to be that speaking plainly doesn't get very widely reported. Sound bites and the horse-race frame, despite our dislike of them, are the reality of media coverage of politics.

  • Adam (unverified)

    I agree with Jon (a safe bet in most cases), and would like to add that Frank Luntz has moments of weakness during which he offers advice to the other side – probably worth listening to.

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    Bill R,

    I actually don't agree that the electorate is unconcious or checked out. I actually think most folks are far more engaged they we give them credit for. The difference between us political obsessives and them is that they just choose to make other things in their life more important on a day to day week to week basis.

    I do agree that often consultants can make their candidates and party leaders too cautious, however I think you and I probably have a much different take on what "speaking plainly" means. Too me, speaking plainly is being real about what matters to regular people and not just the ideological partisans. I think sometimes folks on the far left and far right say "we need leaders to speak the truth" when what they really mean is "we need rigid partisan idelogues who agree with me on everything." My point being that if something only appeals to the far left (for D's) than its probably not the right thing for Democrats to be focusing on if we want to maintain our new found majorities. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying lets take up the DLC platform. Far from that. I'm saying lets take the time to find the really great progressive ideas that us partisans like and have broad appeal. There's plenty of them out there.

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    One of Luntz's pieces of advice to R's, by the way, is "call it climate change, not global warming." So we need to always remember that, and call it global warming. Which has the advantage of being more descriptive.

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    Steve, we like it when you guys call it global warming. Then every time there's a big snowstorm or unseasonable freeze, we like it when you explain that's all a part of global warming, too. I just hope we we can get our guys to start doing something about global climate change while you guys are standing out in a snowstorm complaining about global warming.

  • Bill R. (unverified)

    Plain speaking... Ross Perot's meteoric rise in the '92 election came in large part because he did not nuance his language but used speech that was accessible and straighforward.Even his little blackboard lessons, as unsophisticated as they were, were instructive and appealed to a certain kind of conscious rationality. I always thought he was a kook but I knew where he stood and what kind of America he wanted. Eventually he did himself in because his plain speech revealed the depth of his paranoia and grandiosity in that flawed personality.

    Political marketing is about nuancing speech with deliberate ambiguity so that the listener is misled or manipulated to believe a message that in fact isn't honest or truly representative of the politician's stands on policy. Republicans have been masters at this, especially since Reagan. Campaigns are waged by TV advertising with "soft sell" and unconscious appeal. The vast majority of Americans disagreed with Reagan on the issues, but in fact they really didn't know his real positions. They voted for him because he sold them a mythology they found comforting at an unconscious level, "The shining city on the hill" and "it's morning in America." This is what political consultants have done to America. We don't vote for real policies any more. We vote for the feelings we get.

  • jargon police (unverified)

    Pat, if you want to reach beyond your own circle, I know I am not the only person who objects to the last word in this sentence. "Progressive Oregon groups that I work with are too often sending out emails and alarms about what we need to tell the electeds."

    The Governor and legislative leadership are ELECTED OFFICIALS and anyone who wants my vote will drop the jargon.

    Before Kari says this is a gathering place for insiders, let me just say that's fine, but no candidate supported by those insiders will get my vote if the staffers are using slang/jargon. It sounds sloppy and not caring about the audience.

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    Jargon cop,

    I ain't all that clear as just what you're objections are, but if it's cutesy shorthand, I'm pretty much incorrigible on that one.

    I sure as heck am not an insider nor have I ever been paid a dime by any elected official for any work I've done.

    My circle can best be defined as the area between the end of the baseball bat I'm swinging and the center of my body mass.

    My point remains the same, though. I would like to see my fellow activists and citizen groups pay more attention to the good work that is being done by our employees at the capitol.

    You get better product from praise than from recriminations, although sometimes the latter are in order.

  • anominal (unverified)
    <h2>Interesting website</h2>

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