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For Whom the Bell Polls

The first thing to know about What Americans Really Want…Really is that, despite Frank Luntz’s status as a celebrity GOP pollster, this is not precisely a book about political polling or strategizing. The second thing to know is that, despite its adorable title, What Americans Really Want…Really (henceforth referred to as WARWR) is not really about what Americans really want. Yes, Luntz spins stories from the myriad focus groups and phone surveys that he has perpetrated over the years, both political and corporate. (Like other A-list pollsters, such as Mark Penn, Luntz’s fame stems from his political work, but much of his fortune is owed the corporate types who pay big for a piece of his reputed genius.) And he makes much of the WARWR telephone poll conducted specifically for this book—which, he informs us, is the “most comprehensive” pulse of our nation’s hopes, dreams, and fears ever taken.

But what WARWR is really offering…really… is “Dr. Frank I. Luntz’s prescription for “What Americans really need right now.” This, in fact, is the theme and the title of the book’s conclusiona section so heavy-handed, patronizing, and clichéd that it led me to change my overriding question about WARWR from the benign if bemused, “Who was Luntz writing for?” to the more pointed, “Who the hell does Luntz think he is?” The short answer is that Luntz is a pollster, and, as such, is burdened by the belief that he is privy to the innermost secrets of the American psyche. This is a not uncommon affliction among the field’s elite. (Again, see Penn.) And, really, who can blame them? At its most elementary, a pollster’s job description is to take the temperature of the public on issues ranging from soap to sex to Social Security. These guys make their living by convincing clients that they know more about discerning what the unwashed masses crave than anyone out there. (On the book’s back cover Newt Gingrich proclaims that “Frank Luntz understands the American people better than anyone I know.”) Failure to listen to this wisdom, Luntz stresses in his opening pages, will necessarily lead to financialnay, societalruin.

But as plenty of Luntz’s fellow temp-takers will tell you, polling is as much an art as a scienceand a dark art at that. Pollsters love to tell stories of how their competitors, colleagues, and ex-bosses are wont to cook the numbers, tinker with sample sizes, and, most commonly, massage questions to ensure the desired outcome. Luntz himself is famously reputed to have described his job as getting paid by clients “to ask a question in a way that you get the right answer.” It also bears noting that Luntz himself has been loudly criticized, reprimanded (by the American Association for Public Opinion Research), and censured (by the National Council on Public Polls) for the questionable methodology and interpretation of his polling. For all his boasting about getting the straight dope from the public, Luntz is hardly above imposing his own spin.  

At this stage of the game, most Americans have a healthy distrust of pollsters. So it will not shock many readers that the questions from Luntz’s WARWR survey, helpfully appended, are chock full of vapid catchphrases and false choices tailor-made to prompt a particular response. As much as we hear about today’s entitled youth, is it any surprise that, when asked “What do you think the youth of America need more?” far more people went with “A Swift Kick in the Ass” than “A Gentle and Understanding Hand”? Similarly, when asked, “Honestly, now, what is more important to you… "The Opportunity to Succeed” or “Protection from Failure?”, who wouldn’t choose the answer that does not make them look like a thumb-sucking, entitled whiner? (If anything, I’m surprised by the nine percent who went with option B.) And it is not entirely clear what eighty-four percent of respondents’ hypothetical preference for making “A Lot Less Money at a Job You Love” over “A Lot More Money at a Job You Hate” tells usother than, in their fantasy life, the vast majority of people would forgo compensation to spend most of their waking hours doing something that truly made their heart sing rather than something that made them want to stab their boss and blow their brains out.

For Luntz, of course, these answers are jewels that provide a window into man’s true soul. But Luntz’s analysis of the data is awash in revelations most generously described as unstartling. Do we really need Frank Luntz and his methodologies to tell us that moms do most of the food shopping in your average American household?  That in recent years there has been a rise in the popularity of organic food?  That younger employees don’t have the same sense of company loyalty as did earlier generations?  And how about this paradigm-shattering observation: “Blackberrys improve the speed of communication, but the devices don’t necessarily improve the quality of communication.” (The helpful italics are his.) Thumbing through Luntz’s dissection of our hopes and dreams, the exclamation that leaps to mind most often isn’t “Aha!” so much as “Well, duh!”

This isn’t to say that Luntz does not offer up entertaining anecdotes and clever insights, the bulk of which fall into the category of how to manipulate people—especially older Americans. When encouraging seniors to think selflessly, for example, have them look at pictures of the grandkids. When hosting an event for seniors, pick a room that has no stairs and a top-notch audio-visual system.  Be mindful that old folks' sense that their days are numbered has concrete market implications: retirees want drug companies to focus on meds that improve daily life right now while younger adults are more interested in breakthroughs for currently untreatable illnesses.  When addressing seniors’ myriad anxieties, use the phrase “peace of mind” instead of “security.”  (The latter suggests lurking dangers from which one needs protection while the former evokes a life free from scariness.) And always remember that seniors are willing to pay considerably more for “medications” than for “drugs” or “medicine.”

It is in the book’s presumptuously titled conclusion, however, that Luntz really gets down to instructing Americans on how to save ourselves from the problems he has laid out in the preceding 249 pages. In “What America Really Needs Right Now,” Luntz presents nine national priorities, ranging from resetting our overall expectations to renewing our “celebration” of the family  to “reestablishing the respect for religion” to better respecting “the accomplishments, experience, and continuing resources” of seniors (an admonition some may find odd coming from a guy who has devoted an entire chapter to detailing how old folks should be treated like slow-moving, overly anxious, easily confused children) to “Remembering to Have Some Fun Along the Way.” This last entry is my favorite, in that it allows Luntz to run wild with his political bias as he bounces from lauding Wal-Mart as a national savior (“As we all try to weather this economic storm, it’s places like Walmart that are helping us keep the American Dream alive, not destroying it like so many in the media might want us to believe.”) to blaming “nanny-staters” for making Americans think that “we should feel bad for every bite of fast food and drop of high fructose corn syrup we consume.”

Wrapping it all up, Luntz calls forsurprise!greater responsibility. But he warns against putting too much pressure on the individual, and he certainly is not interested in a larger role for government. Instead Luntz dreams of a new era of “familial responsibility,” noting that “the family is the perfectly scaled security net for every human being.” If this doesn’t warm the heart of every “Leave It to Beaver”-nostalgic, Palin-crazed conservative out there, I don’t know what would. But, like so many of Luntz’s assertions and interpretations, this prescription has less to do with the unvarnished views of the American public than with the ideological preferences of the author. I have little doubt that Luntz has come to believe that he has got the inside scoop on the American soul. But after reading his book, I am mostly convinced that Luntz continues to aggressively conflate what Americans really want with what he really wants them to want. Really.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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