Fox News pollster and conservative political consultant Frank Luntz spoke to Princeton University students this afternoon in a talk sponsored by the College Republicans entitled "Liars, Cheats, and Thieves: Does Any Politician Tell the Truth?" After a short introduction by Sen. Bill Frist, the focus-group wizard began with what he does best: polling. He asked the audience whom they supported in the 2008 Presidential election. After a large group of students raised their hands in support of Sen. Barack Obama, Luntz asked them: "What does Barack Obama actually stand for?" After a few seconds of silence, he continued, "that's my point."
Luntz's talk progressed in this vein: alternating between banter with the audience and straight-up political discourse. And though Luntz has been praised for his elevated political rhetoric, the wordsmith was equally comfortable stooping to the pejorative if it meant he could score some laughs at the expense of political figures.
"I knew [Al Gore] wasn't going to run for President because he gained so much weight," Luntz said. "I thought he'd eaten the director Michael Moore."
And about Sen. John McCain — who Luntz called "a classic American hero" — Luntz channeled Leno more than Lincoln when he said, "McCain is so old his social security number is 6. John McCain looks older and older every year and his wife looks younger and younger." Then, turning to Bill Frist, he said, "You're a doctor, can you explain that to me?"
When a student asked Luntz why Huckabee was still in the race, he responded: "If your name was Huckabee, you'd want to do it too! He's seeing America!"
Luntz's critical banter wasn't reserved exclusively for the candidates, though, as he approached the audience members with the same attitude. Pointing to a preppy student sitting on the floor, Luntz announced to the audience: "This guy walks right out of the Brooks Brothers catalog — you must be a college Republican. It's cold as shit out there — wear socks!"
Only a few audience members dared to challenge Luntz, one of whom sheepishly quoted from an interview on NPR in 2007. After calling the student a "cyborg" for his uncanny ability to recall the date and details of the interview, Luntz said, "I don't even remember this interview. I was probably stoned at the time."
But when not playfully cajoling the audience or spouting off canned political jokes, Luntz conveyed disappointment with his own party. The pollster issued a gentle warning to the College Republicans who had dutifully packed the stands, ready for Clinton-bashing. "College Republicans — I'm sorry but this is not going to be a good year for you," Luntz said. "The American people are angry, anxious about the way things are going in this country."
Luntz also discussed his role as a pollster in an election that has become about issues and principles. While candidates are trying to both adhere to their morals and cater to the public, Luntz acknowledges he's walking a fine line. "When it's an issue of life and death, I expect them to have principles and not move because it's going to get them elected," Luntz said, referencing candidates' tendencies towards triangulation based on public opinion polls. "[They] have the responsibility to know where the American people stand, and if they disagree with it, they need to know why."
In the end, though Luntz danced from sound bite to sound bite, he stressed the importance of fostering a forum for open-minded discussion about politics. "We need a really good public discourse," he said. "What we need are informed voters." He praised and criticized both sides of the aisle, and had surprisingly kind words for Senator Obama, whom he lauded for his ability to unite Americans regardless of race, gender and age. "Beg, borrow and steal your way onto the floor for [Obama's] speech at the Democratic National Convention," he advised the students in the audience. "That will be the greatest speech of your lifetime."