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1 June 2022

Why Frank Luntz regrets being a populist

The US pollster on what voters really want.

By Freddie Hayward

Frank Luntz had just walked for 17 minutes in the rain from Tony Blair’s office near Bond Street, London to a modern French restaurant off Marylebone High Street. His grey-flecked beard was wet as he took off his blue jacket, sat down and looked at the menu. After a pause, he asked with a hint of contempt: “What is Rossini?”

America’s best-known pollster, famous for his political punditry and support for Republican causes, was not happy there. The people next to us were loud and it wasn’t the type of restaurant he would usually frequent. “I eat steak. I eat spaghetti Bolognese. I eat like a child,” Luntz, 60, told me. “I’m as likely to have a chicken and sweetcorn sandwich from Tesco as I am to have anything else.”

“And I haven’t done that for 25 years,” he added, pointing to a glass of wine. Instead, Luntz ordered a double espresso, a Coke Zero and a glass of ice. He picked up the espresso and poured it on to the ice. He then added the Coke. “This will be the third one today.” Why does he drink a minimum of six espresso shots and three cans of Coke before lunch? “Because I had a stroke two years ago and it clears my head.”

Luntz has worked as a pollster for the Republican Party for decades. He worked on the Republicans’ 1994 policy platform, Contract with America, alongside Speaker Newt Gingrich. In 2002, he persuaded President George W Bush to say “climate change” instead of “global warming” (which he told me he regrets) and coined the phrase “death tax” to make inheritance tax sound less attractive. He convinces people to believe in products, policies and politicians through simple and persuasive language. All of which requires that he understands what people think and feel. As he said in a 2003 interview, “My job is to look for the words that trigger the emotion.”

[See also: Can Zarah Sultana save the Labour left?]

There’s little room for irony or allusion in the way that Luntz speaks; he’s abrupt and upfront. He doesn’t like pretentious words, much as he doesn’t like pretentious restaurants. I made the mistake at one point of using the word “milieu” and he cut in: “Now that is the most pretentious word.”

Indeed, Luntz has a knack for demotic speech. That’s essential in politics. The past six years have seen some of the most effective political slogans ever deployed. What did he make of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again”? “Politically brilliant, ethically problematic,” he pithily replied.

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The Leave campaign’s “Take back control”? “Brilliant, because it’s active. It’s not ‘Get control’. It’s not ‘Take control’. It’s ‘Take back control’. And that is a focus on language that most people do not have.” Is it also morally questionable? “I don’t know. Because I’m torn about Europe – I want more integration, not less… the Brexit campaign is proof that, politically, emotion trumps rationality.”

A few days before our interview, Luntz gave a lecture a few hundred metres from parliament at the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), a free-market think tank, in a room lined with grand portraits. Luntz told the gathering of elderly, aloof conservatives to “Wake up!” His speech built on research and polling he’d done at the CPS last summer. He had found a deluge of resentment, he warned, which is manifesting itself in populism on the right and “wokeism” on the left. And he’s worried that the US’s invidious, hateful politics is coming to the UK.

When Luntz asked people last summer what aspects of their lives they thought politicians understood least well, the “rising cost of living was far and away the top answer… We warned then that politicians were already being blamed. And that it was going to get worse. But I’m sorry, the politicians didn’t listen,” he said. “So let me try one more time. With so many people struggling to get by… it is no surprise they feel disenchanted and believe their country is not invested in them.”

And we are only at the beginning of the economic spiral. “If you’re working class, you’re already in a recession,” he said during another event at the CPS. Indeed, UK inflation is set to reach 10 per cent by the end of the year and a potential recession looms. What is needed now, Luntz argues, is seriousness.

Luntz’s opinion matters because he has influence. In the past week alone, he’s met three former prime ministers, as well as Boris Johnson, with whom he attended Oxford University, and he’s due to meet a fifth, Gordon Brown, within a month. “I have met every British prime minister since Harold Macmillan,” he said with pride. He wouldn’t divulge the details of their conversations, but thinks Tony Blair remains the best politician on either side of the Atlantic. “No one is more likely to present a global vision of democracy, economic freedom and social responsibility… the best thing about Tony Blair is what he did to make Thatcherism more compassionate,” he said. “The best thing Thatcher did was to make people believe in the UK again. The best thing David Cameron did was to blur the party lines so that people could unite again.”

[See also: David Miliband: “Only brilliant people win from the centre left”]

By contrast, Luntz’s view of Johnson’s government is cutting. The Conservatives, he said, “lack discipline. They lack focus; they lack answers. And there’s not enough empathy. People need to know that you care and they need to know that you get it. And I don’t think there’s enough of that… The only thing worse than the Conservatives right now is Labour.”

He argued that Labour is “all performance. It’s all entertainment. They don’t demonstrate it [empathy] either. They’re just telling you to vote against the Conservatives… They have no answers. They have no solutions,” he said, pausing to pour his white asparagus velouté into his espresso and Coke concoction.

“[Keir Starmer’s] language is not that good,” he continued. “His vision is not that strong. People are not passionate about him. But he’s responsible… I’m not inspired by him. I’ll tell you someone who I am interested in is David Lammy [Labour’s shadow foreign secretary].” Why? “He’s provocative and I think he has an understanding of his voters… but his social media is too extreme.”

“There needs to be some sort of consensus now more than ever,” he said. He listed the most important issues as NHS waiting times, crime, inflation and the “fourth one that no one’s talking about now, but they will be, is education… And it’s not a Conservative solution, not a Labour solution and it’s not a Lib Dem solution. They need to be borrowing from each other.”

In a bookshop after lunch, Luntz grazed his fingers along the book spines in its Russia section. “I always look at what they show on the cover because I know how important the cover is as to whether or not you buy it. You’re looking at that kind of writing,” he said, his finger flicking to another book, “versus that kind of writing.”

How does he reconcile the superficiality of the sell with the substance of the product? “To do good things you have to be able to explain them,” he said as we walked out of the shop. But over the past six years, the sell has superseded the product. The slogan has replaced the policy. That has left Luntz in despair. “I can’t shut my head off, I don’t sleep at night. I haven’t been healthy in some time. And I’m agitated about the world around me…

“The truth is the truth doesn’t matter. And that’s what I hate most about society right now. That is my greatest frustration,” he said.

“I used to be a populist, a very proud one,” he added. “And I’ve come to regret that.”

[See also: George Monbiot: “Agriculture is arguably the most destructive industry on Earth”]

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special