Friday, August 11, 2006

GOP presidential contestants, come on down!

Hey, TGIF and all that, so let's keep it light. (Or as light as this particular blog permits.)

I have an interesting memo here from Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster/messagemeister/marketer/focus group maven who has basically worked with just about everybody in the GOP camp. He goes on for 28 pages about the 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls, and it makes for fun reading, if only because he is summarizing the views of participatory Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire.

These folks gathered in focus groups. Luntz put them in a room, chatted them up about what they're looking for in a candidate, then showed them various TV clips (C-Span, Sunday talk shows, speeches) and gauged their responses. The upshot is that it's clear the GOP race is wide open -- not just because there is no obvious Bush heir in the wings, but also because voters are extremely suspicious about politicians these days, even about those who possess the traits deemed to be most desirable.

So, from the memo, here's the thumbnail rundown:

1. Virginia Senator George Allen. Great conservative soundbites ("The strategy in this entire war on terror needs to be 'we win, they lose..."), coupled with a Reaganesque affability and speaking style. But because he's so polished, some focus-groupers dismissed him as too slick, and hence too "political." Some participants said, "I wonder if he's just saying what I want to hear?" Also, Allen's macho manner (he's the son of a famous football coach) turned off the women. One of them said, "He reminded me of an old boyfriend...and there's a reason we're no longer together."

2. Tennessee Senator Bill Frist. Good conservative soundbites, but he's a snore. Remember, the guy's a doctor. A participant said: "I really like what he had to say, I just hated the way he said it. It's hard to believe him because he lacks aggression. There's no passion there." And Luntz concluded that "In a political age where image matters so much, Frist has a lot of work ahead of him before primary voters will warm up to his medicinal style....(H)is halting delivery was definitely an irritant...And candidate discomfort leads to voter discomfort."
(None of this surprised me. I've seen Frist in "action," up in New Hampshire last year. If he runs, I can already envision his mid-February announcement that he is "suspending" his campaign.)

3. Rudy Giuliani, the so-called America's Mayor. The Luntz crowd loved it when he conversed about 9/11, his whole rap about how the dead were 80 nationalities, "rich or poor, white or black..." One participant sounded like a movie ad: "Giuliani is inspirational, idealistic, and a visionary. I like him!" Another said, "He speaks with conviction...this man could sell meat to PETA." However, this was all before Luntz told them that Giuliani was pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and pro-gun control. At that point, Luntz writes, "his support melted away like butter on a warm dinner roll." In other words, he flunked the GOP primary litmus tests. Forget it, Rudy, stick to the lecture circuit.

4. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. This was interesting: his Mormon religion was fine with the New Hampshire participants, but the Iowa folks, particularly the women, had a real problem with it. No surprise, in a way. The GOP Iowa caucus electorate is heavily Christian conservative, whereas New Hampshire Republicans tend to care a lot more about economic issues. The problem for Romney is that Iowa is the first stop on the primary trail. If the Iowa focus group reaction is typical, it means he won't have real cred as a GOP candidate unless he can win over the conservative base on the religion issue, right at the starting gate.

5. Newt Gingrich. He charmed them all with his big-picture futurist rap, which is basically the opposite of your standard political sound-biting. The participants liked the fact that he doesn't sound like other politicians. Most importantly, writes Luntz, he contrasts well with President Bush: "Support for the president is wide, but that doesn't mask the disappointment with his inability to articulate a deeper philosophy about the war, and a greater commitment to small government and less spending. And that's exactly where Gingrich is strongest." However, the participants had misgivings about his strong personality. They thought that he tried too hard to convince people of how smart he is. Also, Iowa folks thought he was too combative; in Luntz's words, they felt he was "a little too angry and defensive."

6. John McCain. Finally, the big enchilada. The participants liked his strong national security credentials, his strong criticisms of big-spending pork-barrel Washington, and the way that he acknowledged mistakes in Iraq but still felt it was important to hang in there and succeed. They also liked his flashes of wit, which seemed to humanize him. However, while they liked his obvious "passion," it still made them uneasy. One voter said: "Wow, it looks like he is just going to pop his top any second." Luntz concludes: "McCain is just too intense. His greatest asset is his greatest weakness. Even when he addresses his anger issues, he loses voters; they're afraid of him."

7. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. I know, who cares? He's interested, but are Republicans going to nominate a guy who's chief claim to fame is that he lost 100 pounds? Luntz writes, "Personal stories won't carry a candidate in this election." Participants noted all the nice things that Huckabee said he has done in Arkansas, but they judged him as too relaxed, not enough fire. Also, he's from Arkansas, and participants didn't go for that. Luntz recalls, "We were told repeatedly that Arkansas is not America." And, as Luntz notes, remember who else was from Arkansas.

8. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback. He may be a favorite of the organized religious right groups, but not even the Iowa participants liked his incessant references to his Christian faith. It's clear that even the Philadelphia Phillies will go to the World Series before this guy goes to the White House. Luntz concludes, "Republicans want a president, not a pastor...Republicans surely want their leaders to have a deeply held sense of faith, but they don't want it explained in every detail."

9. Jeb Bush. Just kidding; Luntz didn't test Jeb. That might have been a good barometer on the state of GOP opinion toward the House of Bush. If only.

So there you have it: Frist is judged to have too little personality, Gingrich too much. McCain is judged to have too much passion, Huckabee too little. Allen is polished as he sound-bites the right issues, but they don't trust the polish. Giuliani is less polished, but he has the wrong issues, and they don't trust that, either.No wonder it's wide open. I'm surprised Luntz didn't record massive outbreaks of Ronald Reagan nostalgia.

Anyway, it's the weekend. Party on.