Frank Luntz on the Divided State of U.S. Politics

Hari Sreenivasan sits down with strategist Frank Luntz, who has helped shape the Republican message for decades and now says the country is more divided than ever.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: The Republican Strategist and Pollster Frank Luntz has worked with some of the most powerful Conservative politicians of recent times. Now, working with VICE news to try to understand why Americans have such difficulty disagreeing without going so-called nuclear on each other. He told our Hari Sreenivasan why the situation is so dire and what needs to change.

HARI SREENIVASAN, CORRESPONDENT: Frank Luntz, thanks for joining us. So heading into the midterms, where are we as a nation or should I say two nations?

FRANK LUNTZ, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I don`t know if it`s two nations because in some ways it`s a dozen or even more. I`ve never known us to be so angry with each other, so disrespectful, so distrusting that we tend to write each other off within the first moments of what we hear, that you have viewers right here that are going to make a decision about whether they like me or not. And that decision will determine whether or not they stay with the segment. Why have we become so impatient? Why have we become — why do we think that we can say and do anything because we have the right to be heard? It used to be that we wanted to learn. Now, we just want to speak.

SREENIVASAN: There is a clip that we have from a show that you just did, a special for “VICE News”. This is some voters in Nevada. Let`s take a look.


LUNTZ: By a show of hands, how many of you would say that you`re mad as hell about all the stuff that`s going on? It`s almost all of you.


LUNTZ: What are you so mad at if the economy is so good?

RAY KOVITZ, SMALL BUSINESS OWNER: The economy isn`t everything.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. There`s a lot more than just the economy.

KOVITZ: It`s healthcare. It`s the way that they`re treating certain classes of people.



KOVITZ: Exactly.


KOVITZ: These are things that are disturbing. The economy is only one segment. It is great to have money but if you`re living in a society that

doesn`t value other things, it`s sad.

CHERYL BUTLER-ADAMS, TRAVEL AGENT: We have to be civil whenever we have a discourse. I want my president to be civil. I want him to have more than a third-grade vocabulary.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I want him to have self-respect.


BUTLER-ADAMS: I don`t want him to go to the U.N. floor and be laughed at.

MARC DOUGLAS, TRUCK DRIVER: We need somebody that`s going to stand up. We have been abused.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don`t see it that way. I think he says things in a different way and I don`t like the last statement.

LUNTZ: I have to ask this question. You`re talking about civility and then it goes to hell the moment that Donald Trump is mentioned. Why is that?

JANINE KOVITZ, SMALL BUSINESS OWNER: Because we are learning it from him. I mean, [14:40:00] he interrupts people. He bullies people.

ERNIE DOMANICO, MATH TEACHER: And the problem is he`s attacked non-stop by the media every single day. He can`t win no matter what he does.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I thought we had a conversation. It wasn`t just —

KOVITZ: Well, if he wasn`t doing what he`s doing, he wouldn`t be attacked.

LUNTZ: OK, OK, hold on. Is this America? Do you represent America? You`re nodding your head yes.




SREENIVASAN: I mean they`re proving your point. They can`t even stop interrupting each other. And you said this at the beginning of this.

LUNTZ: That was 45 seconds into it. It got worse. By the way, that was them behaving well. They don`t know each other. They never met each other before. And the moment that the word Trump is entered into the discussion, it comes apart. The truth, it comes apart when you say healthcare. It comes apart when you say tax cuts. It comes apart on everything. Tragically, that`s America.

SREENIVASAN: Have we become more entrenched? Have we backed into our corners even more and how much of that is President Trump responsible for?

LUNTZ: His language is unlike any other president. His presentation is unlike any other president. And the people who condemn him are like any other critics. Where are the people who are saying enough is enough? Where are the people who are saying let`s calm down, get in a room, disagree but come out with some — with something? There`s an agreement to be made on immigration. I know it. There`s an agreement to be made on education because I have heard both sides or all sides. But nobody wants to come to an agreement for two reasons. They`d rather yell and be just so harsh at the people they disagree with and you`re punished if you compromise.

SREENIVASAN: When you talk about the parties in that context, in Washington today, is the Republican Party President Trump`s party? It seems that the ideological conservatives, it seems that the sort of fiscal conservatives, the establishment has lost any ability to challenge him.

LUNTZ: Donald Trump has a higher favorability rating among Republicans than any Republican or Democratic president in modern times with their own political party. And as popular as he is among Republicans is as despised as he is among Democrats. So that`s part of the problem. He used to try to appeal across the country. The president is committed to keeping his promises. And I know this from friends I have who are working in the White House. He is determined that the things that he said on the campaign trail he`s going to do and no one`s going to stand in his way. That`s an admirable approach but we should be reaching beyond our base. We should be reaching to those who didn`t like us back then to say, wait a minute, give me a second chance.

SREENIVASAN: You know, the thing is — and I`m not putting it all on your shoulders but part of this is a reaction to campaigning by polls by seeing exactly what`s going to work with which particular audience and just going after them over and over again.

LUNTZ: I don`t agree with that. Because if you`re campaigning by polls, Donald Trump would not be saying what he is saying and he would not necessarily be doing what he is doing. If you were campaigning by polls, he would not be in a trade war with China.

SREENIVASAN: It seems like there`s a bunch of people in the manufacturing rust belt that would say, “Hey. You know what, great. This slogan makes total sense, bring the jobs back to the country.” That`s exactly what he is doing, whether it hurts the soybean farmer or not.

LUNTZ: And whether or not it`s supported in the polls. The fact is the wall has a minority support. That more Americans oppose building a wall than support it. Now, they want border security and they want barriers where it`s necessary but a wall is not a popular issue but Trump talks about it. In fact, I`d argue that Donald Trump is more willing to challenge what public polling shows than any other president in my lifetime. And I wish that he were more open to reaching out, more open to pulling people in.

SREENIVASAN: You know, since I have got you here, you know what works in a political ad and what doesn`t. You have been helping campaigns for years now. So we want to play a few different ads and I want you to just tell me why this ad would resonate and what the key themes were that were kind of engineered into it knowing what buttons to push. Let`s take a look at one of the first ads that`s now running in Florida.


CASEY DESANTIS: Everyone knows my husband Ron DeSantis is endorsed by President Trump. He`s also an amazing dad. Ron loves playing with the kids.

RON DESANTIS: Build the wall.

DESANTIS: He reads stories.

DESANTIS: And then Mr. Trump said, “You`re fired”. I love that part.


LUNTZ: Best ad in a primary campaign of anyone running for the Senate, governor or the House. The best.


LUNTZ: Because he so wrapped himself around Donald Trump that a crowbar could not have separated them. And that is the worst ad for the general election which is why they stopped running it after the primary because there are an awful lot of people in [14:45:00] Florida who have not decided who they`ll vote for, for governor, but don`t have a favorable point of view of Donald Trump. You don`t do that. I know we`re a few days away from the election. I believe the Democrat wins that race and that`s a very historic race for the Democrat to win. There are other extenuating circumstances that are happening as you and I are doing this interview but the Republican is so tied to Trump who has a favorability rating of below 40s in Florida. That`s not what you want to do.


LUNTZ: He won the primary but I don`t think he wins the general election.

SREENIVASAN: All right. Let`s shift gears to Texas. There`s an ad running against Ted Cruz. Let`s take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Somebody left something on my door the other day. It said, “Ted Cruz, tough as Texas.” I mean come on. If somebody called my wife a dog and said my daddy was in on the Kennedy assassination, I wouldn`t be kissing their ass.


LUNTZ: I love that because people don`t know the background behind it. That`s a very famous Hollywood persona who hates Cruz so much that he got in the middle of the race. You don`t do that in Texas. Texans do not like Hollywood and they do not want actors, directors, producers or anyone from the Hollywood community telling them what to think or what to do. And second, it is funny but that doesn`t change someone`s vote. The reason why Beto, the Democrat, has done up to this point so well is because he offered a very positive vision. He offered an alternative to the president, to the senator and people compare him to Barack Obama. I compare him to Bobby Kennedy. But in the last 10 days, last two weeks, he`s gone so negative that he`s no different than any other politician. He would have had a shot of beating Ted Cruz if he actually kept to the end of the campaign this message of not only am I different but we can win without tearing each other apart.

SREENIVASAN: Let`s take a look at an ad that has a lot more to do with patriotism and fear, Ms. McSally.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The first female pilot to fly in combat. She has launched a one-woman campaign against a military policy in Saudi Arabia that forced her to wear a long, black Islamic robe over her Air Force uniform.

MARTHA MCSALLY (R), ARIZONA SENATE CANDIDATE: I absolutely refuse to bow down to Sharia law. After eight years of fighting, I won my battle for the religious freedom of American servicewomen. Now, I`m deployed to D.C. to fight for Arizona, supporting our troops and saving the A-10, protecting Arizona jobs and securing the border.


LUNTZ: Arizona is one of the oldest states in the country in terms of the average age of the population and it has a higher than average percentage of Veterans. That`s what that ad is attempting to appeal to. People have been critical of it because she brought in Sharia law and they don`t feel like that`s a legitimate issue. But if you noticed in the visuals, she was always in uniform. When she spoke, she spoke straight to camera, not to some unseen interviewer somewhere and she wanted to say to the people there because swing voters there aren`t pro-military. She wanted to say to them, “There`s no one tougher than me, I will fight for you.” And in this election environment, if you`re the one who`s fighting for us, if you`ll be our voice in Washington, you have an advantage.

SREENIVASAN: There`s another comedic ad talking about some issues that are not resonating. Let`s take a look.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What happens when the average Joe out there realizes that we got, like, the entire Republican tax cut? I mean we got like all of it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on, they got a tax cut. OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Side table, how much was your tax cut?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was not a lot, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. But for someone like side table, not a lot is actually quite a bit.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I bet he saved enough this week to buy a, hell, I don`t know, a latte at Starbucks, right?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shut up, side table.


LUNTZ: I have not seen that until right now and the reason why I`m smiling because that ad is effective. Only 30 percent of Americans felt they got a tax cut. That ad plays to the 70 percent who feels like they didn`t. The actual statistics, it`s somewhere in the 80 percentile that paid less in taxes because of that legislation but no one knows it. And so that ad says, “Wait a minute, the rich got it. Did you get any?” And what Republicans didn`t realize, two responses here. Number one is they forgot that so many people do direct deposit for their paycheck, that there`s no way for them to know that they got a tax cut. And number two is Republicans, quite frankly, communicated it so horribly. For months, they talked about we needed to get business. We needed to help business so the economy would be stoked and then jobs would be created. It worked. What`s our unemployment rate now? It`s like a 50-year low. Our growth rate at four percent is incredible. [14:50:00] The economy is healthier in more places than it has been in decades. And the GOP gets no credit for it because its messaging and its communication completely failed.

SREENIVASAN: How have your personal politics evolved? If somebody googles you, they`re going to say, ” Oh, this is a Republican. He`s worked with Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich. He`s such a student of language he knows the power of crafting a question a particular way to get a different kind of response.”

LUNTZ: My whole life has been about supporting things rather than tearing it down, has been about promoting free enterprise rather than capitalism. Because people see capitalism as Wall Street and free enterprise or economic freedom is Main Street. It`s been about promoting hardworking taxpayers rather than the middle class because everyone defines themselves as a hardworking taxpayer. So yes, I do focus on language. But in the work that I`ve done in the inner cities, I recognize, I will acknowledge that telling people to get your act together and pull yourself up by your bootstraps is meaningless to someone who has no parents, no adults in their life and no boots. But I also have seen all this money, these billions and billions of dollars, go to people and have no impact whatsoever. I`m wrong. I was wrong. My philosophy of libertarianism, I guess, conservative libertarianism, does not help kids in the inner city get the education they need to have the life they deserve. It doesn`t.

SREENIVASAN: Was there a tipping point? Was there a specific issue? What do we need to focus on?

LUNTZ: For me, personally, it was going into the schools, kids that were angry when they were only 15-years-old and you would think they have so much to live for. And the stories that they would tell me would break my heart. And, in fact, I had to stop doing the research because I couldn`t keep going into the schools. I would leave there crying because it`s a lie. The American dream has to be available to everyone. I say this as a Conservative. It has to be available regardless of your gender, regardless of your race, regardless of your income, your parental situation, your geography. It isn`t. I say this to every Conservative. It is not as alive in West Virginia as it is in Massachusetts. It is not as alive in Compton as it is in Beverly Hills. We have always had income inequality and disparity of opportunity and we will always and you have that in socialist countries. It exists everywhere. But we have always said that you had the chance to make it out. And I`m telling you that I`ve now met way too many young people who will never have that chance to make it out and that their future is prison or death. And in my understanding of this country, that is unacceptable and our politics doesn`t address any of that. Who`s talking about poverty in this election campaign? Not the Republicans, not the Democrats. Who`s speaking up for those who don`t have a voice? Donald Trump says he is. He`s speaking up for the working class. He`s speaking up for people who have the skills and have a job. They`re not being paid well but they have a job. I`m talking about the kids who are 25 blocks from here who are attending schools that are crap, that they can`t even read the diplomas that they`re getting, that they`re being passed through for a social promotion so that the teachers don`t get fired.

SREENIVASAN: You don`t sound very optimistic.

LUNTZ: I`m very pessimistic. If — I have had a couple of good days. If I had done this interview a week ago, it would have been hard for me to get into this chair. I believe that we will not — I question whether we will come back. Generation after generation, society after society fell when it could no longer solve its problems, when it could no longer (INAUDIBLE). The Romans is the best example. Rome fell because of moral decay and political decay and it happened at the same time. Now, tell me if you don`t think it`s happening here right now.

SREENIVASAN: Frank Luntz, thanks for joining us.

LUNTZ: I don`t think you`ll ever have me back but I appreciate the invitation.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Serene Jones, Union Theological Seminary’s President, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky and Richard Clarke, former U.S. Nat’l. Coordinator for Security and Counter-terrorism about the attack on America’s Jewish community; and Celso Amoirm, former Brazilian Foreign and Defense Minister, about Brazil’s election. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Republican strategist Frank Luntz.