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26 October 2000

The Daily update: Frankly committed

Synopsis: The pollster's panel was "uncommitted." But what of the pollster himself? (NOTE: See our postscript on some must-Z-TV.)

Commentary by Brian Williams, Frank Luntz
Decision 2000, MSNBC, 10/11/00


Talk about those slippery standards! (See yesterday's "Howlings" column.) After the second Gore-Bush debate, we couldn't help chuckling when we watched Frank Luntz with his group of uncommitteds. The excitable Luntz had some very big news when Brian Williams went to him in Ohio:

WILLIAMS: A group of uncommitted voters has been with us all evening long under the good auspices of Frank Luntz, political pollster, who joins us now from Cincinnati, city in the crucial battleground state of Ohio. Frank?

LUNTZ: Brian, this is now the third time that we've gathered these undecided votersBut there's something that this night featured that we never saw before. We do have a clear winner.

A clear winner! Finally! It was just about time! This was the second meeting between Bush and Gore, but the third such forum including the veeps. Our analysts came right out of their chairs when they heard that Luntz had found a winner. But alas, they fell back into their seats as they heard the pollster continue. And no, dear readers, we aren't making this up. Here's what Luntz said next:

LUNTZ (continuing directly): And you can all demonstrate by a show of your hands. How many of you believe that George Bush exceeded your expectations for what you expected this evening? Please raise your hands.

Brian, that's almost everybody.

Indeed, it almost was. But we couldn't help chuckling to see the ol' bait-n-switch; told that we finally had a "clear winner," what did we actually receive? We received a different bit of news—we were told that Bush had "exceeded expectations!" The bait-and-switch which ruled Debate I was set in stone by Luntz in Debate II. Did "almost everybody" think Bush had won? That isn't what Luntz asked them! And here was part of the pollster's first interview. The exchange occurred with an uncommitted named Carolyn for whom Bush had "exceeded expectations:"

LUNTZ: Now, you were leaning Gore when you walked in here.

CAROLYN: Yes.

LUNTZ: Are you less leaning Gore now that you were before?

CAROLYN: No.

Hay-yo! Such moments have tended to trail Luntz around in his work with the 36 uncommitteds.

Luntz, of course, was a very odd choice for this role on Decision 2000. Williams introduced him as a "political pollster," but Luntz, a fine pollster, is a good deal more—he is arguably the most partisan Republican pollster of the decade, the polling architect of the Contract With America. Luntz's skills are undeniable, but so is his (perfectly appropriate) partisan past—which never seems to get mentioned by Williams. Indeed, Luntz's hiring furthered the trend in which MSNBC has seemed to be competing with Fox. The TV talk audience tilts to the right, and it's hard to look at Decision 2000's panels and think that the network hasn't noticed. By the way—when Mike Barnicle is hired to lecture on ethics, the comic reshaping of our discourse is complete.

The fact that Bush had "exceeded expectations" was certainly worth reporting. (We'd have trusted the show of hands a bit more if it hadn't come from a focus group which Luntz had directed for hours.) But Luntz pulled off a cool bait-n-switch—"exceeding expectations" made Bush a "clear winner." So it goes on this comical channel. Back to you, Brian—over to Chris!

Ralph Z TV: Tomorrow morning, Ralph Z. Hallow of the Washington Times appears on C-SPAN's Washington Journal. Last week, we reported on the doctored quotes which Hallow used in his recent reporting on Gore. Amazing, isn't it? Pretending to examine Gore's tendency to lie, Hallow—on three different occasions—doctored up things the veep had said to make the veep seem dishonest. The public interest is badly cheated by the kind of "reporting" which Hallow did. We hope that he's asked to explain it. See "Howlings," 10/18/00.