Political Pollster Grows Into His Jewish Identity

By Nathaniel Popper

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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Republican pollster Frank Luntz has seen his fair share of loss and disappointment working on the political campaigns of unsuccessful presidential candidates such as Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot.

But the work Luntz has done for the Jewish community during the past year and a half has introduced him to a new, double-edged sadness.

Researching the attitudes of young Jews for a report called “Israel in the Age of Eminem,” Luntz concluded that the Jewish community has failed miserably in engaging its younger members.

While he has tried to measure his words when presenting the findings to local Jewish federations across the country, Luntz did not mince words in an interview with the Forward. His message to the Jewish parents of America was unforgiving: “You have let your children down. By your religious liberalism, you have done more to destroy a religion than any suicide bomber, any politician or anyone filled with hate ever could. Shame on you.”

The 41-year-old Luntz has a round, cherubic face and smiling eyes, but they become a blur of angry movement when he gets worked up.

Luntz is scarcely more restrained when talking about another subject he has researched: the attitudes of Arabs and Palestinians toward the Middle East conflict. In polling for Palestinian Media Watch, he found that only 10% of Palestinians consider suicide bombings to be acts of terrorism, while 26% would not want the “armed struggle” to end even if Israel left all territories and granted statehood to Palestine.

“How can you negotiate with a people who want you dead?” Luntz asked rhetorically.

A man who is known for finding the right words to win campaigns has no answer to this question, and it engenders him with a peculiar hopelessness. He sees a Palestinian population unwilling to negotiate and a Jewish population unable to argue its own case.

The passion with which Luntz speaks about Israel may be surprising to observers who have not kept up with Luntz’s career, especially given his work in 1992 on the aborted presidential campaign of Buchanan — not exactly the best friend of American Jewry.

Over the years, though, Luntz has grown into the Jewish skin he had developed during years of Sunday school, and he began to coach his Republican candidates, from New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, on how to appeal to Jews. “Be vocally and unconditionally pro-Israel,” was the advice he gave them.

With each of these clients, Luntz found the language to make their policy choices, on Israel and beyond, sound attractive. He has pushed Republicans to refer to “tax cuts” as “tax relief,” and in one famous memo he instructed Republicans to use “Daschle Democrats” and “obstructionist” in the same sentence whenever possible.

He homes in on the decisive combination of words through the “dial test,” a special form of the focus group that he has turned into an art form. In the dial test, a person is put in front of a television screen with a small handset that allows him or her to respond to each word and moment of a speech or advertisement. Luntz plays with the message being delivered to see which words are effective and which are not.

“He is the best person at dial testing on the planet,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a Democratic consultant who is the founder of The Israel Project, which recently released a guide for Israel advocacy on which Luntz worked. “He can spot a trend before anyone else.”

After being crushed by his findings in “Israel in the Age of Eminem,” Luntz set out to find words the Jewish community could use to defend Israel successfully. In The Israel Project’s guide, he tells American Jews that they need to use the words “democracy” and “flexibility” when talking about Israel. They should never use the word “never” when discussing the peace process.

It seems natural to read Luntz’s recent involvement with the Jewish community as a sign of a much-debated rightward shift among Jews.

Luntz himself did a poll for the Republican Jewish Coalition that indicated surprisingly high levels of Jewish support for President Bush; critics quickly pointed out that the survey was conducted in November 2001, at the peak of Bush’s popularity.

Even Luntz is skeptical of the talk of a seismic shift, though.

“It is now ‘in’ to be a conservative Jew,” he said. “It won’t last, but as long as it does, I’m going to have fun with it.”

Leaving behind the question of whether the community really is moving right, though, Luntz insists that his politics play no part in his research.

“I don’t take sides. I don’t fight over policy,” Luntz said. “I listen to the principles of my audience and try to apply that to the support of Israel.”

Mizrahi, who describes herself as a “liberal,” said that when she and Luntz worked together on The Israel Project both of them “checked their partisan hats at the door.”

But critics, of which Luntz has his share, question how successful Luntz might be in effacing himself from his work.

One prominent pollster, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “This is a guy who loves publicity more than anything else, and the appearance of power that comes with that publicity.”

Some political insiders say that Luntz’s self-promotion has gotten in the way of good research.

In 1997, the American Association for Public Opinion Research censured Luntz for violating the association’s code of ethics, the only such censure in the recent history of the organization.

A 14-month investigation into Luntz’s work found that he repeatedly had refused to disclose the questions and methodology of polling work he had done during the development of the Republicans’ 1994 “Contract With America,” of which he claimed to have been a chief architect — a hotly refuted claim among critics.

Luntz said that the information in question was proprietary.

“I owe my loyalty and fidelity to my clients, not a bunch of academics,” he said.

Luntz does not shrink from taking credit for the recent work he has done with Jewish groups.

“I hear from friends that rabbis are citing these reports in the pulpit and citing me by name,” Luntz said. “Here I am, someone who rarely goes to temple, and yet my name is evoked all across the country.”

Even Luntz, though, seems to have realized that he will not be able to bring peace to the Middle East, and so he says his research for the community is over.

“I believed that I might be able to change something when I started,” Luntz said. “It’s a year and a half later, and now I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. All I see is more death, and more hatred, and it’s just too painful for me.”

Within a few moments, though, he was buzzing about the preternatural appeal of Giuliani. “The man does for 70-year-old Jewish men what Elvis did for 17-year old Jewish girls,” he said.

Maybe the short attention span can be explained by the fact that he has not slept for more than two hours a night in years. Or maybe it’s that, as with so many of his campaigns in the past, like a good political consultant, he has seen defeat and moved on.






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