Frank Luntz and Focus Groups are Destroying the GOP Message

Frank Luntz may smugly believe that Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin and other right wing talk radio hosts are "responsible for the stark polarization within the nation's political discourse" and therefore "problematic" for the Republican Party.

I submit the problem is that Luntz, and a misguided over-reliance on focus groups, has neutered and thus destroyed any semblance of courage in the GOP's message.  Luntz is conflating, as many wonks and number crunchers do, cause and effect with regard to the bigger realities and polarization. The country is polarized because, well, we are polarized.  Rush and "the great one" didn't make it so simply by speaking the truth.  And pretending to believe the same absurdities the lo-info crowd believes won't make us any less polarized either.  Logic dictates that as long as we run low information campaigns, we'll suffer at the hands of the low information voter.

Meanwhile, it is becoming obvious that Luntz has become a prisoner of his own results over the years, and as such, has become obsessed with what misinformation voters already believe. He seems to have lost interest in the value of persuading voters to believe the truth.  To Luntz, and to Karl Rove, and in fact most to Republican consultants, a poll or a focus group is not the starting point for voter education, it is the end point for candidate capitulation. This explains the constant surrender in the arena of ideas by candidates and spokes persons who are ostensibly on "our side." 

Rove admitted as much to the big money donors when he was forced to explain why the message -- from the Romney Campaign and from Rove's Crossroads organizations -- was so tepid.   With Haley Barbour at his side, and with a straight face, he told the donors that he had "uncovered an acute understanding of the voters" as a result of focus groups.  That entire notion, when you think about it, is preposterous.  Instead of simply observing the entire country experiencing the devastation caused by Obama and other liberal policies for four years, Rove and his hired wizards pulled a few soccer moms into a lab for a couple hours to get their "acute understanding."  What could go wrong with that?  

"If you say he's a socialist, they'll go to defend him" said Rove, adding "if you call him a far out left winger, they'll say no, he's not."  Which may be true, as far as it goes, but Rove's conclusions ignore the fact that it was just the kind of frightened messaging he and Luntz prefer that allowed people to believe that Obama is a nice guy, who is more or less a centrist, in the first place.  Moreover, a two hour focus group is totally unable to measure is the impact of a bold campaign over time.  

In other words, the consultant class is convinced that if Americans believe Bush and free enterprise caused the economy to crash, we must agree with them.  If they think Palin is a dolt, beat them to the punch.  If Obama is thought to be the mastermind of Seal Team Six' operation that got bin Laden, congratulate him and lavish him with praise.  The focus group says so!

History, not to mention common sense, says otherwise.  When Ronald Reagan ran for President, his messages were fearless, partisan and conservative, and while he met with severe push back initially, he stuck with the truth and won big over time.  The same can be said of the 1994 mid term blitz orchestrated by Newt Gingrich, where the initially maligned "Contract With America" carried the day and blew away 54 Democrats in the House and 8 in the Senate.  In 2010, the oft-ridiculed Tea Party was going to end the Republican Party's relevance, right up until they ended the Democrat's majority by winning 63 House seats, over 700 other state legislative seats, and a bunch of state houses.   

Reagan would never escape a focus group.  Neither would the Contract with America, and certainly not the Tea Party.  Truth and conservatism are intellectual pursuits, and as such, cannot be explained or even properly contemplated within the confines of a single focus group or poll result.  And yet Rove, the so-called "architect," cannot grasp this rather pedestrian understanding. 

And apparently, neither can Luntz, and neither can the establishment consultant class.  They would rather craft careful and non-confrontational campaigns that make the undecided voters get the warm and fuzzies in the focus group, than communicating the truth.  Thus ,we get campaigns that are more geared towards not offending soccer moms in Southern Ohio than they are towards saving the American experiment in liberty and self governance.   

Rush and Levin are not geared that way, and reality can sometimes be offensive and polarizing - yet it is still real.  If the GOP doesn't figure this dynamic out, we're going to have a lot of un-offended soccer moms - living in a third world country.  Wonder what Frank's cute little dials have to say about that?

C. Edmund Wright is the author of the newly released WTF? How Karl Rove and the Establishment Lost...Again, in which he further examines the focus group issue.  His pithy twitter feed is @CEdmundWright and his Facebook page is CEdmundWrightAuthor

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