MACON — If you’ve been thinking the 2016 presidential primaries have been unusually unpredictable so far, you’re not alone. Frank Luntz feels the same way.
Luntz, the pollster and focus-group wizard who frequently appears on Fox News Channel, said the current cycle is the first time he’s felt so unsure about who would end up being the major-party nominees. Speaking Tuesday at the Georgia Chamber’s congressional luncheon in Macon, Luntz asked the roughly 500 audience members to applaud for the candidate they supported as he read off a list. Most of the candidates received a modest amount of applause — except for Rand Paul, for whom a single person appeared to clap, and Rick Perry, who got crickets — but no more.
“There was applause for all those different candidates, but no ovations for any of them,” Luntz observed.
He also made the case that there is real drama on the Democratic side. “I don’t know that Hillary Clinton is going to be the nominee,” Luntz said. He referred to Hillary’s new polling low: “We’ve never elected a person with a 38 percent approval rating six months before the first vote” is cast.
If you’ve watched Luntz on TV before, you’re probably familiar with his system of measuring audience reaction second-by-second as candidates debate or deliver speeches. He showed the Georgia Chamber crowd a series of clips of different candidates, including a speech by Bernie Sanders and the part of this month’s GOP debate in which Fox’s Megyn Kelly grilled Donald Trump about demeaning things he has said about women. They were overlaid by graphics showing how viewers (not the Chamber audience, but some previous focus group he didn’t identify) reacted to what Sanders and Trump said.
What was striking was the way Republican and Democratic viewers alike reacted positively to both men — who, Luntz said, are “tapping into the same anger.”
At one point, Sanders’ mid-speech ratings were, as Luntz noted, “off the charts.” His candidacy might be even more powerful, Luntz suggested, if the 73-year-old Sanders were a little younger: “His language is so powerful to a middle class that is struggling to remain middle class, and a working class that believes it will never make it to the middle class.”
Trump’s viewers weren’t quite as enthusiastic, but there was strong bipartisan support for Trump’s riff about political correctness in response to Kelly’s question. “He changed the entire focus” away from his past statements, Luntz observed. “And people across the country sat there and said, darn it, he’s right.”
All of this, he argued, poses a problem for the business community, whom he challenged to shake up the way it thinks and talks to put more focus on workers rather than business owners. To the politicians in the audience, he said this: “It cannot be your way or the highway. There has to be common ground.”