Frank Luntz Gets Called Out For His Phony Obama-bashing 'Focus Group' After The SOTU

It really isn't any news to our readers that Frank Luntz is one of the most ethics-challenged "pollsters" out there, particularly since he really has had so much influence on our national discourse by his significant role in shaping right-wing talking points.

But as Ellen at NewsHounds observed the other day, he really reached new depths with his dog-and-pony "focus group" on Fox News with Sean Hannity that followed President Obama's State of the Union address -- because it was so obviously larded up with Obama-haters:

Given that 53% of the country voted for Barack Obama, 15 or 16 people should have been Obama voters to make it a representative sample of Americans. Furthermore, given their level of hostility to Obama, especially when he is enjoying a resurgence in the polls, you have to wonder how many of those 13 were Obama-voting Republicans or Tea Partiers. Luntz also repeatedly asked his group questions designed to elicit negative comments about Obama.

Today, the L.A. Times' James Rainey lowered the boom with a devastating critique:

The kangaroo court convened with Chief Justice Hannity declaring Obama "flat," redundant and out of touch. Luntz didn't even bother to stifle a smile when he told the 29 members of the focus group, "I don't want you to feel under pressure because of what Sean Hannity just said."

Luntz asked those seated in the front row to give a word or two to assess Obama's performance. Seven of 10 let him have it. "Platitudes," said one, followed by "empty, redundant, political, not connected with America, hyperbole and Obama conflicting...."

Never mind trying to find neutral language — the goal of any truly nonpartisan pollster — so as not to taint the subjects. In one question, Luntz allowed the panel to say only that the speech had exceeded or fell short of expectations. No chance for the panelists to stake out the likely middle ground. Lo and behold! Most of them said the speech fell short.

Perhaps the slipperiest of Luntz's tricks played on the most important question of all: how Obama has handled the economy. First noting that the president called the "worst" of the recession over, Luntz later said: "How many of you believe the recession is over, raise your hands?" He then relayed the result: "Three of you. So obviously that must have undercut credibility when he said it?"

Of course, when you misstate what a politician says — in this case taking out the all-important qualifier that Obama referred to the worst of the recession ending — it's not hard to make that politician look woefully out of touch.

In an exchange of e-mails the next day, Luntz defended his claim. He said his panel had "dialed downward" (with hand-held devices for keeping running tabs on the speech) at the moment Obama spoke about the recession. "It's what they heard," Luntz said. "I realize Obama said the worst of the recession is over, but they heard the recession is over."

The day after our little e-mail chat, Luntz clearly intended to keep mangling Obama's message. "The president said the recession is over," he said on the Fox Business Network's "Imus in the Morning." Naturally, people are too "angry" and "agitated" to hear that kind of talk, he said.

Indeed. As you can see from the video above, Hannity sets the tone from the outset, clearly advising the "focus group" on what the tenor of their remarks should be -- though Luntz lamely tries to tell them not to pay Hannity any mind:

HANNITY: First of all, I thought a lot of this was flat, surprisingly so, inasmuch as we've heard a lot of this before -- earmark reform, transparency, for example. It almost seemed like the "Yes, we can" magic disappeared a little, maybe because we've heard it before.

But the thing that struck me Frank, and I'm dying to find out what your group says, is the disconnect. I did not feel the president had the sense of urgency, how bad unemployment, the debt, the deficit is, when he called for $400 billion in savings, when he accumulated $3.4 trillion in new debt since he's been president. It seems like he's trying to sell the same policies.

FRANK LUNTZ, POLLSTER: Let's fan out what our 29 people in Atlanta had to say. And I don't want you to feel under pressure because of what Sean Hannity just said. I want a word or phrase to describe what you thought of the speech.

And it just goes quickly downhill from there.

Nice schtick you've got there, Frank. It's obvious you're addressing those concerns about not getting as much airtime on Fox as you used to, as Rainey notes:

He has suggested that his airtime has previously been cut on Fox because his findings didn't comport with the outlet's orthodoxy.

All "fixed" now, eh?

Full transcript below:

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: Good evening welcome to the special edition of Hannity. President Obama addressed the nation tonight in his annual State of the Union address. Unlike his previous addresses this came before a divided Congress with Republicans now in control of the House.

The speech ran 62 minutes during which the president vowed to keep America competitive, called for a five year domestic spending freeze, and pushed for bipartisanship. But did the speech resonate with Americans?

We turn now to Frank Luntz. He's standing by with a live focus group in Atlanta tonight. Frank, I don't know what your focus group has to say. I'm going to give you a few of my thoughts.

First of all, I thought a lot of this was flat, surprisingly so, inasmuch as we've heard a lot of this before -- earmark reform, transparency, for example. It almost seemed like the "Yes, we can" magic disappeared a little, maybe because we've heard it before.

But the thing that struck me Frank, and I'm dying to find out what your group says, is the disconnect. I did not feel the president had the sense of urgency, how bad unemployment, the debt, the deficit is, when he called for $400 billion in savings, when he accumulated $3.4 trillion in new debt since he's been president. It seems like he's trying to sell the same policies.

FRANK LUNTZ, POLLSTER: Let's fan out what our 29 people in Atlanta had to say. And I don't want you to feel under pressure because of what Sean Hannity just said. I want a word or phrase to describe what you thought of the speech.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Optimism, platitudes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Empty.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Redundant.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Political.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Not connected with America.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hyperbole.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Obama conflicting and Ryan was speaking just like every American I meet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hopeful on Obama, but not compelling.

LUNTZ: I want to see a quick show of hands of everyone in this room, did he exceed or fall short of your expectations? Who would say he exceeded, raise your hands? Two people. Who would say he fell short? A lot of you.

Sean, I want to go to one clip we did, because Obama talked a lot about bipartisanship, and yet the Republicans didn't respond too favorably to that. The red line is Republicans, green line is Democrats. Watch how high the green declines and red falls when Barack Obama appeals directly to partisanship.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together or not at all, for the challenges we face are bigger than party, bigger than politics.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LUNTZ: So the question is, what is it about this appeal to bipartisanship that those of you on the Republican side don't like?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't believe it.

LUNTZ: Explain it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He said that before. When he first got into office he was going to be the president to change everything, come across the aisle. It never happened.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is phony.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is bipartisan? Is it if you agree with me? I mean, we've got two sides here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't want to use one of those curse words we can't use. The Republicans didn't. The first thing he said was I'm not going to work with him. I'm not going to work with you. That's like throwing down the gauntlet.

LUNTZ: Hold on one second. Sean, you've got a question?

HANNITY: Yes, I do. Somebody said it. He said all of these things before. He said it last year, during the campaign. And this whole campaign it was only a couple months ago when he was calling Republicans enemies. They can sit in the back. For two years Republicans weren't invited to the table.

So in that sense are we just reading words from a teleprompter or has he lost the ability because he has two years experience for people to belief him?

LUNTZ: So here's the question, is it politics or principle that you heard tonight? Who would say politics, raise your hand. Who would say principle? You said principle, tell me why?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This president is doing the best he can at this point. He's trying to be in the center. He's not being -- it is not that he's trying to cause problems with the economy. He's doing the best job he can do. I think he's doing a great job. He's brought unemployment down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Experience, experience, and we are not making any progress whatsoever.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In 2000 he said Bush is not the real president. And then they are yelling at him for the same thing. Everyone is saying the same things again, it's 10 years later, the same thing, but we are worse off.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two years of railroading legislation in Washington, rolling over Republicans, accusing them of being cynical. Now saying let's come to the table, have a drink and work together. It's nonsense.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Like getting romantic talk from Tiger Woods. Are you going to put your trust in him?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They got a lot done this lame duck session. When they did come together and pass bipartisan support, things got an accomplished. You have people probably to the far right who don't want to see any time of compromise. When you have compromise, things get done, you get bills passed.

LUNTZ: Again, what is wrong with compromise? I want to understand.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have to have some compromise. Give a little on both sides.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's nothing wrong with compromise. People have to talk about what is good for each side and take the good together. Not everybody is going to be happy.

LUNTZ: Is Barack Obama sincere about bipartisanship?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We don't know.

(CROSSTALK)

LUNTZ: One at a time. Is Barack Obama sincere?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think he is. And I think it should be the American people what they want. We are all-American, not Democrat, not Republican.

LUNTZ: I get it. Sean, the State of the Union is supposed to bring people together. It is supposed to appeal to all Americans, not just the Americans from your political party. I don't think that has happened tonight. They are just as divided now as they were an hour and a half ago. Back to you.

HANNITY: Well, Frank, you can't forget the two years. It's a big difference.

All right, we have a lot more with Frank Luntz coming up in just a minute and his focus group. Tomorrow night, by the way, we'll have Mitt Romney, his reaction. Also Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove. There's plenty more with Frank coming up right after this break.

HANNITY: Welcome back to this special edition of "Hannity." And we check in once again with Frank Luntz standing by in my old hometown in Atlanta with a focus group of voters. Frank, you have another dial I believe you are going to run?

LUNTZ: Yes. Once again, watch the lined as the Republicans, green Democrats the higher the more favorable reaction. Barack Obama said the worst of the recession is over. Let's see if your people agreed with him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Now the worst of the recession is over, we have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable. Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LUNTZ: So I got two questions now for you all. How many of you believe the recession is over, raise your hands? Three of you. So obviously that must have undercut credibility when he said it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think with inflation at risk still and unemployment the highest it has been it is worse for us still. With the debt, it is kind of everyone is still worried. There's too much uncertain ground.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I feel like I'm taking crazy pills. He's talking about cutting spending, are you kidding me? All this guy does is spend. He said we need to live within our means.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're a small business owner. Do you feel the economy is starting to turn around for people like you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I'm afraid of the economy for people like me. I don't feel like that at all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's talking cutting spending, but he wants to freeze spending for five years and that's two different things.

LUNTZ: And then one other question for you all. He does say that he wants to cut spending. How many of you by a show of hands believe him? Now, 13 of you voted for him. Sean, all the questions I'm asking, only three, four, five of them feel comfortable with the things that he said or how he said them.

HANNITY: One thing, it is very interesting. I paid close attention to what the president was saying. And I find the word "investment" to be code for an increase in government spending. He gave two very specific examples about the one company and another example. And he's talking about investment in education, investment in green jobs.

It all means more spending from my point of view. As one of your guests pointed out, he's had two years, $3.4 trillion he accumulated in new debt. He wants to freeze spending but freeze at the inflated levels that he began. So it doesn't seem like any significant cut, in my point of view. Do they think so?

LUNTZ: OK, do you think Barack Obama is serious? Do you think the cuts he's talking about are significant?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No! Let's look at the facts.

LUNTZ: One at a time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were not told the truth from the time he game president. Why should we believe him now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's disguising what he spent using words like investment as opposed to saying he's spending. He's not reducing anything. He's just transferring how it is spent.

LUNTZ: Did you support him?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I did.

LUNTZ: And yet you have problems with what he said about cutting spending?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because everything he has said thus far hasn't been true.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If both sighs come together -- he was talking about both sighs coming together -- and then determine what they can cut. It both sides come together then it will be true. It can happen if both sighs work together like they did in the lame duck session.

LUNTZ: Sean, last question?

HANNITY: Frank, of the 13 you say in the room that voted for Barack Obama, would -- are they leaning towards reelecting him?

LUNTZ: How many of you are definitely or probably voting for Barack Obama in 2012?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Without knowing the alternatives?

LUNTZ: Without knowing the alternatives, who is pretty well behind him? Seven of you. Why are only seven of you who voted for him still most likely to be voting for him now? What did he do that was wrong?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Who is the other candidate, is it you Mr. Luntz?

LUNTZ: You might not vote for Obama?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you run I'll vote for you.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How can you ask a question like that. Is the gun green or blue when it goes off?

LUNTZ: Because what that teaches me is even in his base, there are people such as Lawrence who may not vote for him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right, because the things that he had to do, he had an opportunity. He didn't do it right. So now he has -- someone else has to come in and clean it up.

LUNTZ: Sean, great group. If I were Barack Obama watching this tonight, I would be a little bit nervous. And if I were Paul Ryan, I would be pretty excited.

HANNITY: Great focus group. Thanks to everybody, and that's all the time with have left. We have Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Karl Rove tomorrow.

Comments

We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.