Frank Luntz explains his Obama-loathing focus group


This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

The Big Picture earlier told you about the focus group Fox News has been relying on to assess President Obama’s performance in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address--a speech the panel mostly rated as abysmal.

That seemed surprising, given that Obama’s approval rating has been rising in recent weeks and that he made no stunning new proposals in the speech, while pledging to work to find common ground with Republicans.


Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who led the panel of 29 people in Atlanta, responded via e-mail that the focus group’s negative reaction was not as surprising as I might think it was. He said that people who use computer ‘dials’ to instantly record their impressions of a speech or debate are responding to something specific and express different views than the public at large.

‘I have found that when people dial a speech, they pay closer attention to everything said,’ Luntz wrote. ‘When I did this for Fox in 2008, Obama WON all three debates for the same reason. A casual observer will have a different reaction (like being impacted by applause and standing ovations) than someone listening closely.’

‘And that accounts for why Obama can have a 50% job approval, a 60% favorability, and an 80% likeability rating all at the same time,’ Luntz continued. ‘The questions measure different aspects of a person’s image. People who are dialing the speech focus much more on the substance than the style.’

[Updated at 9:40 a.m., Jan. 27 Luntz offered a final word on his focus group via e-mail Wednesday night: ‘And as the guy whose focus groups gave obama wins in three out of three debates live on fox news, you can’t say I have an anti-obama track record.’]

Still, I wondered about the composition of the panel, since Luntz said almost nothing about that when he appeared on Sean Hannity’s show Tuesday, except that 13 of the 29 voted for Obama in 2008. In our extended e-mail exchange, Luntz responded: ‘I didn’t ask party affiliation or ideology.’

That seemed odd, since I had seen a Luntz Twitter message from earlier in January in which he directed prospective focus group members (who would be paid $100 each) to a questionnaire. That survey explicitly asked two dozen questions related to the subjects’ demographic, ideological and political views, including opinions on Obama.


When I asked Luntz about the questionnaire, he acknowledged: ‘Yes, I asked those questions when people initially applied to participate, along with education, income, occupation, ethnicity and lots of other questions. I ask a lot. I do everything I can to have these groups reflect the voting pool from wherever I am. But I didn’t ask party ID or ideology again that night.’

Maybe something was lost in translation again because, a bit later, I got another e-mail in which the pollster informed me that he did know the party affiliation of those on his Tuesday panel, after all. There were 8 Democrats, 10 Republicans and 11 independents, he said.

Luntz had earlier told me that ‘four invited Obama participants still didn’t show,’ which I took as an acknowledgment the panel was not as balanced as it might have been.

In any event, it would have been nice if Luntz had taken some time on the air to explain who was on this panel and what it was supposed to represent. Given that the group’s views went out to a national television audience, a viewer would suspect it reflected a cross-section of the entire electorate. Or was it likely voters? Something else? The partisan mix suggested something closer, I’m guessing, to party makeup in the Republican-leaning state of Georgia.

Luntz’s initial survey of prospective panelists also asked them overall to rate Obama and give him a letter grade. Again, it would have been nice to know how those we saw on national TV had responded to those questions. But TV apparently doesn’t have time for such details.

As the Big Pic previously noted, Luntz asked the focus group how they felt about President Obama saying the recession was over. That seemed particularly leading and unfair, because Obama never declared an end to the recession. Instead, he said, in the State of the Union, that the ‘worst’ of the recession had ended. He stressed that more jobs are badly needed.

Luntz said he asked the question that way because the panel ‘dialed downward’ at the moment Obama spoke about the worst being over. ‘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 pollster said he would show the panel’s reaction on the air in a future Fox program.

After about half a dozen e-mails, Luntz seemed to have had his fill of my second-guessing. He told me he was struggling to get home in a snow storm.

‘Geez, give me a break,’ he protested. ‘You try running one of these sessions live with all the technical, audio and video challenges. How about giving me credit for telling viewers who these people voted for in 2008, or keeping them respectful to each other when they’re ready to attack. This stuff is tough.’

--James Rainey
Twitter: latimesrainey