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Political Communications Guru Frank Luntz on USA 2020 Election: “I’m Afraid.”

Interview with US political communication expert about Trump and Biden's possible strategies for the White House in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic

Frank Luntz - Flickr Gage Skidmore

Frank Luntz is worried about the hostile political environment caused by the government's response to the covid-19 pandemic. "I have never been so fearful of the democratic process failing as I am right now", he says. We also asked him about Bernie Sanders and Biden's vice presidential pick....

In Italiano

Why did Bernie Sanders lose the nomination? Who will Joe Biden choose as Vice President? How is the media portraying Donald Trump? We talked about all of this with political and communications consultant Frank Luntz.

For over thirty years, Frank Luntz has been the brain behind GOP talking points. In 2007 he published a New York Times Best Seller, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear. Today, we asked him what are the “words that work” in 2020 and what does he think about the political environment going into this year’s presidential election.

Let’s start off with a pressing issue for the Democratic nominee. How will Joe Biden convince the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to vote for him?

“He is either going to do it by his vice-presidential choice or via the platform of the party. His policies have changed significantly since he started his campaign a year ago. He is more inclusive on healthcare, he wants a greater government role, he has taken a pro-union stance on a number of economic issues, which progressives have called for. In fact, Joe Biden today sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders did in 2016. Nevertheless, there will be some progressives that will not support him because they think that he is too establishment simply because he has been Vice President. They think he has been around for too long. But make no mistake, since Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, I think just about every progressive will come out and vote, and will vote for Biden. At most, maybe 1% of the progressive population may vote for a Jill Stein type candidate, a very left-wing independent candidate. But I think the Democratic party will be unified by the fall, and that’s going to make it very difficult for Donald Trump.”

Joe Biden in the illustration of Antonella Martino

Who will Biden choose as Vice President? Both Kamala Harris and Stacey Abrams have been gaining momentum recently…

“He has to choose someone with state-wide experience. Stacey Abrams was in the legislature, but she couldn’t even win as governor of her state, Georgia. Kamala Harris qualifies because she was Attorney General, but Biden may not forgive her. She went after him in such a personal way during the debates, to try and undermine his credibility with the group of Democrats that supported him the most [African Americans] throughout the entire election. If I had to pick I would say the Governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer. She is a more likely choice because she does bring her state, she was able to beat a Republican in a state-wide race, she keeps Biden’s promise of choosing a woman, and she wins 18 electoral votes.

Stacey Abrams cannot guarantee those votes, and Kamala Harris comes from a state [California] that Biden will win anyway. So, I believe Biden chooses someone who adds a state, and adds a skill. Remember, the key in all of this is also the vice-presidential debate. You have to be able to bring someone who will out-debate Mike Pence, and that’s very difficult. Whether you agree or disagree with him, he is a very good debater, and Whitmer has already had the experience of delivering a State of the Union response. So that’s why I think that she is the front runner right now.”

Having failed in both 2016 and 2020, what does the progressive wing of the Democratic party have to do to win the nomination? Is it a problem with the candidate [Bernie Sanders] or with the policies?  

“Bernie Sanders was a great choice and he had a great favorability rating, but his policies are simply too much to the left of the mainstream of the Democratic party. There was a moment when I thought Sanders was going to be the nominee, but South Carolina changed everything. In the end, what Sanders was calling for frightened some Democrats who felt that he wasn’t electable. Almost every poll showed Biden doing better than Sanders against Trump. The mainstream of the Democratic party chose electability over policy. I actually believe that if you just polled Democrats on Biden’s policy versus Sanders’ policy, without saying their names, Sanders wins. But that’s not what these primaries were about. In many of the Southern states, you had independents and even Republicans who could vote in the primaries. That made a difference in Biden’s support. To my amazement, Sanders was never able to cut through with the African American community. That community had known Joe Biden for so long and he had been so supportive of civil rights, that he simply was the perfect fit.”

Will the decisive territory of the 2020 presidential elections still be the Midwest, or states like Georgia and Arizona?

“Michigan is the best indicator of who will win. It has one of the worst cities affected by Covid-19: Detroit. It has an academic community that represents the whole country – the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It has an old town that has struggled over the past decade, which used to vote Republican and now votes Democrats: Grand Rapids. It has the old factory towns that have been decimated: Flint. It has the old rural areas, the farming communities: Travers city and the northern part of the state. Michigan is a microcosm of America, and it has a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature. It is the best indication of who wins, by far.

State number two is Wisconsin, for the same reasons. This is a state that didn’t even vote Republican when Paul Ryan was on the ticket, it voted for Barack Obama, but it voted for Donald Trump in the last election, even as it was electing a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature. Those are the two states that I follow more than anything else. Arizona is up for grabs because the state has so many people from the northeast, and from California that have moved in over the last 10 years to avoid paying taxes. Arizona’s population used to be Republican, but now it has been much more of a swing state. I don’t think Georgia is in play in 2020, but it will be in 2024. Pennsylvania will revert back to its Democratic leanings. And let’s not forget New Hampshire, which is only 4 electoral votes, but in 2016 the election was decided by just 4 electoral votes.”

Trump and the Covid-19 pandemic in the USA in an illustration by Antonella Martino

In the era of Trumpism, do you think the American people still value facts over opinions?

“People are increasingly valuing their facts which are based on their opinions, rather than impartial, unbiased, objective points of view. But this is not just happening in America, it’s happening all across the globe. This is a part of the rise of populism. People are choosing individuals not because they support them but because they oppose somebody else or some other group. Our campaigns are getting more negative and more hostile. The great example was Brexit, it wasn’t pro UK independence, it was anti-European control. I’m afraid that politicians are using the skills that I myself learned 20 years ago to divide people rather than unite them. I don’t see an end in sight; in fact, I think we are getting worse. But it’s not just the loss of facts, it is also the loss of legitimacy. When a population starts to lose faith in democracy, and starts to lose faith in each other, then the entire system is in jeopardy. And thanks to Covid-19, and thanks to how governments have behaved, I have never been so fearful of the democratic process failing as I am right now.”

Do you think the media is portraying Trump correctly?

“Donald Trump is being turned into a victim by reporters. He shouldn’t be saying what he is saying, but the media is giving him the chance by yelling at him and trying to embarrass him. They tried to instigate him, not realizing that they are killing their own credibility. The polling for CNBC showed that one of the most disliked individuals in the country is Donald Trump, a majority of Americans disapprove of his job performance. Close behind is the media. They have no one but themselves to blame. If they continue to insult him, if they continue to ask questions that are not appropriate for White House press conferences, they will continue turning him into a victim in the eyes of the people.”

If the media is doing such a bad job, could online broadcasters and social media be the solution?

“It’s true, the media has chosen sides. CNN and Fox News both call themselves news networks, both assert that they are unbiased and fair, but both of them have been putting highly partisan, highly political titles underneath what the President is saying, which is affecting how people are coming to their conclusions. I know Fox has an issue, and I know CNN has an issue, and I know MSNBC has an issue. However, the reason why I still prefer them over online and social media is that at least they are showing you something real, and then they give you their spin. Unfortunately, many times they give you their spin first and then they show you why they feel that way. But I don’t trust online and I don’t trust social media. If you look at my Twitter account, I go out of my way to always share both viewpoints.”

You wrote a very influential book in 2007 which was titled “Words That Work”. What would you say are the words that work in 2020?

“The most important word to me now is reconciliation. It’s a word that has been used in religious terms, it’s been used in cultural terms, it’s what needs to happen between the Pakistani and Indian populations, it’s what needs to happen in Palestine and Israel, it’s what needs to happen in Russia and Ukraine, it’s what needs to happen between Greece and Turkey. Reconciliation is number one. Second, you can no longer talk about capitalism. It has a feeling of winners and losers, it gives people the feeling of haves and have-nots. What people truly seek is economic opportunity and economic freedom. The opportunity to make a difference in their lives, the opportunity to make decisions for themselves.

Another word that is really powerful right now is to revitalize, revitalize our economy, revitalize our culture, revitalize our faith in the future. That means that it existed once, but we have to pour new life into it. And let me add one thing, social distancing is the wrong term. It really is about personal protection. Distancing is shutting yourself of from people, and that’s not what we wanted to do, we wanted to protect others. We stayed at home not just to do something good for ourselves, but to do something good for others. It’s why if someone walks toward us, we try to walk around, we try to give them the path, we try to give them the personal protection they need. Social distancing is saying get out of my life. The language of 2021 is going to be the language of empathy, the language of understanding, and I hope the language of mutual respect.”

Trump in the illustration of  Antonella Martino

Now that 4 years have passed, can you make a final case for why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 and why Donald Trump won?  

“If Hillary had won more Bernie supporters in 2016 she would have been elected President. She particularly lost men aged 55 to 68, who were white, non-college educated, and not secure in their jobs. They were people who thought that Hillary was condescending. When the Access Hollywood tape came out, these people actually turned around and supported Trump, because they thought he was one of them. But what I’ve never been willing to do is criticize a Trump supporter, because so many of them are economically challenged, so many of them played by the rules, never took a government paycheck, never took a welfare check, never took a food stamp check and have been living just above the poverty line. I’ve always empathized with them because they tried to do the right thing all their lives and they saw Donald Trump as answering those politicians who had promised them the moon and had given them nothing. Factory workers, union members, who voted Democrat all their lives but this time voted for Trump because they thought he understood them and they were desperate to send a message that they had been ignored, or forgotten. No more.”

Blunt question: Who is going to win in 2020?

“I don’t know. I have Democrats who tell me Trump is going to win, I have Republicans who tell me Biden is going to win. I can’t tell, because we don’t know where this virus is going. We don’t know what kind of election we are going to have. We don’t know how soon we are going to open up. We don’t know what kind of campaigner Trump is going to be in this new environment, we don’t know what kind of campaigner Biden is going to be. We don’t even know whether there will be an in-person Democratic convention or not, and whether that will make a difference. I don’t mean to cover my bets, but my responsibility is to tell you the truth. And the truth is, I don’t know.”

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