Super pollster Frank Luntz on the GOP debate today, and how tight both fields are in Iowa.
HH: We begin with the big story of the day, which is the Republican debate, the last debate before Iowa and New Hampshire votes, and we’re joined by Frank Luntz, pollster to the world, author of…what’s the name of the most recent book, Frank?
FL: The book is called Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, and I’ve got to thank you, because when you first had me on the show, Words That Work zoomed up Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, and stayed there, thanks to your show. So I appreciate it.
HH: Well, I appreciate your coming back. Words That Work, of course, talks about effective communication. And never is effective communication more important than when you want the Republican nomination, and you’re debating. You ran a focus group. Who won the debate today, Frank Luntz?
FL: The winner today was Mitt Romney. They felt that he was presidential, they acknowledged that he was well-scripted and well-rehearsed, but they appreciated that he answered every question straight, every question direct. His answer on education, in terms of the Massachusetts record, was very impressive to people. He emphasized that it’s not just teachers, it has to also be parents who are making a difference. His positions today were better articulated than they have been in some time. And even though very few people in our session walked in there supporting Mitt, he was the overwhelming victor.
HH: Now Frank Luntz, can you generalize from that reaction…by the way, I was watching, I watched it on Jet Blue the whole way across. The only time I couldn’t see anything, the captain came on to talk about turbulence or something, when Romney’s people meter went, your dials went off the charts, as high as they went. Was that the education question?
FL: That was the education…he did it on a couple of different questions. He also, his position on taxes, focusing on giving a break to hard-working middle class taxpayers also tested tremendously well. And they just felt that his, he was sharper than the other candidates.
HH: Well, I must admit, looking from my small screen on a Jet Blue chair, he looked very presidential. He had the best camera angle today of the other ones. Now let me ask, Frank, the question I was getting to, does that focus group predict for us well how anyone watching the debate would have reacted?
FL: It…well, I’ll put it this way. Our group for Fox News was the first to show Mike Huckabee doing well. And in fact, people came up to me afterward and said wait a minute, he’s not one of the top four. He’s not even one of the top six. Why are you focusing on Huckabee? The answer is that Mike Huckabee, up until today, was either first or second in virtually every debate. His faith-based language, his presentation on his record as governor, and his humor and his accessibility put him at the top. Now today was a little bit different. And he was a little bit different today. He was much more careful about what he said. And I have to tell you, I think that the last couple of weeks, he is now thinking to himself, wow, I might actually be able to win in Iowa, therefore I have to be careful about what I say. He cannot have that philosophy. What brought him to where he is, is that he is the most candid, the most open, the most humorous and the most accessible of all the candidate. He was not so in today’s debate.
HH: I’ve got to ask you about a big story in the New York Times, and I will be spending a lot of the show talking about this because I’m so appalled by it. In the Sunday New York Times magazine, Huckabee is asked about Mormons, and he says to the reporter, don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers? This is the worst sort of injection of what many people will view as just naked religious bigotry. What do you think, Frank Luntz? Does it hurt him? How’s he fix it?
FL: I do think it hurts him. And he should have said something in today’s debate. He made reference to it by saying he needs to be more careful about what he says. He should’ve have been more explicit and clear about rejecting that sort of language. Conservatives will not tolerate an attack on other people’s faith. When you are someone of faith, and provided that that faith…
HH: Oh, we lost him. Well, you know, try and get him back up there, because I think this is very, very important. When Romney, excuse me, when Mike Huckabee attacked Mitt Romney’s faith in the New York Times today, I put the paper down and said to myself, it’s over for Mike Huckabee. You cannot do that in the American debate. And earlier focus groups by Frank Luntz have proven that point. And if we get him back up on the phone here, we’ll go over that with him. The fact of the matter is it’s poison. And it’s too late to undo that. I don’t think you put that genie back in the bottle, and I think Mike Huckabee destroyed his campaign. Now he’s been under a lot of pressure because of the Dumond case, because of all of his other pardons, because of the illegal immigration, getting in-state tuition, because of his foreign policy incoherence, not knowing about the NIE, the fair tax, a lot of different things have come down hard on Mike Huckabee. Welcome to the top tier. But that…Frank Luntz, you’re back with me now. I think I had earlier seen when Romney’s religion was attacked, and he responded, didn’t you have an earlier focus group that showed that voters rallied to Romney’s response?
FL: Republicans…it’s a very good point. Republican voters will not tolerate an attack on faith of any kind.
HH: Oh, we lost him again. That’s what happens when you do cell phones. Well, if that is the case, we’ll try one more time, then we’ve got a terrible, terrible day for Mike Huckabee, because once again, Mike Huckabee said to the New York Times about Mormons, yeah, and it was just such a cheap shot, he said you know, don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers, question mark. Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers? You know, if he’d said something like do you think the Jews killed Jesus, or do you think Catholics pray to Mary like she’s a god, or indulged any of the old line bigotry, he’d get hammered. Oh, Frank, you’re back. Now you were just saying Republicans will not tolerate this.
FL: They will not tolerate an attack on faith. And they believe that someone who believes and lives that faith is someone who should be respected. I think that he will regret that quote, I think he’s going to be challenged on that quote, and I think it may slow his climb, which is truly incredible, by the way. He went from roughly 3% to leading in the polls in less than two months. That’s a faster climb than Howard Dean.
HH: Can he possibly have the same kind of descent as Howard Dean? Or is his support stronger than Dean’s was?
FL: His support is very strong, but it depends on what he says. Mike Huckabee is a creation of language. As long as that language hangs in there, he will do well. If the language deteriorates, so does he.
HH: Now obviously, people start tuning out political messages as we get close to the holidays, Frank Luntz. And in Words That Work, you talk about when you send a message as well as what you say. Do you try and campaign during these holidays if you’re a Republican candidate? Or do you respect people’s desire to be away from the normal during this family season?
FL: Well, this is the topic in Iowa and New Hampshire. And both states know that they are going to help determine the nominees, if not the next president. If there is a population that will tolerate campaigning during…
HH: Oh, we lost him again. Isn’t that something. I wonder if it’s because of the connection in this studio. If there’s a campaign that will tolerate it, he said, it will be the one in New Hampshire and Iowa. That having been said, Adam, how much more time do I have until I’m out? About two minutes. And so if we get Frank back one more time, I’d like to ask him for some predictions. So maybe we can figure that out one more time, because I think on the strength of the week that Romney’s had, if he finishes hard with a Meet the Press show op on this Sunday, when he sits down with that, it will be very well for him. Frank Luntz, I don’t want to lose you without asking your predictions. Who’s going to win Iowa? Who’s going to win New Hampshire?
FL: On the Democratic side, I’m willing to say that Barack Obama…wow, I was hoping you would ask me the nomination question. In terms of Iowa, you can’t predict it. You cannot on either side. Obama has clearly surged, not just in Iowa, but in New Hampshire and South Carolina. And Oprah Winfrey’s appearances on his behalf have apparently helped him. But Hillary Clinton has the best organization that we’ve seen in modern politics. On the Republican side, Romney has spent a lot more money, and has more people on the ground, and that matters in a caucus. But to have to make up now ten points is pretty tough. I’ve never been afraid until this year to project into the future. No thinking political analyst worth their weight would ever prognosticate on this one. It’s just too tough.
HH: If you had to bet the house, Frank Luntz, and you had to bet all the proceeds from Words That Work, who are going to be the nominees of the two parties?
FL: Well, if I had to bet the proceeds from Words That Work, I’d rather bet on 36 black than try to pick the winner of this one. I would have said to you, up until two weeks ago, that Hillary was going to win Iowa. If I had to bet on it now, I’d say Obama wins. On the Republican side, I can’t pick it. I just can’t. You’re going to have to give me another week to see how people react to the New York Times article and this last final Republican encounter.
HH: Frank Luntz, always a pleasure. Words That Work, perhaps the most important book, if you’re in business, of the last year, you’ll want to go to Amazon.com and sign up for it. Frank Luntz, Frank, thanks, sorry about the technical problems, I look forward to talking to you again sometime soon as we proceed through this.
End of interview.