Transcript: Face to Face with Frank Luntz

Nancy Cordes: hello and welcome to Face to Face. I'm congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes and I'm joined by Frank Luntz who of course is a noted pollster, communications strategist, primarily for Republicans but you do a lot of work for corporations and the Democrats sometimes too. Thank you so much for being here with us.

Frank Luntz: We talk, let's put it that way.

Nancy Cordes: They don't pay you--but you give them a heads up every once in a while.

Frank Luntz: There's certain issues and certain concerns that really, basically, transcend partisanship and it's one of the problems now that people who watch this video are really angry that you have to be either Republican or Democrat and some issues there is no partisanship, it's just americans. So I try in the work that I do - I don't always succeed--but I try in the work that I do to bridge that gap and to find language and messaging and those topics where we're not divided, it kind of brings us together.

Nancy Cordes: Let's talk about messaging when it comes to the presidential campaign, because I think a lot of Republicans would agree that Mitt Romney has had a couple of tough weeks because the topic, as much as he tries to refocus it, has been on his work at Bain, on his taxes -

Frank Luntz: Which is amazing, by the way. When I was a student and I got out and my students, as a professor, everybody wanted to work at Bain -

Nancy Cordes: Right.

Frank Luntz: Every - Bain is the pinnacle of a successful, free-market company that helps companies survive and grow. And they also don't have a perfect record. Not every company succeeded with them. Everyone respected Bain. And now suddenly it's become the focal point of the presidential campaign and Mitt Romney doesn't know how to talk about it, which I don't understand. It's simple. If I can: we need to be the most effective nation economically. We need to be the most competitive nation economically. We need to have the best training, the best education, the best resources, the best tools. And companies like Bain help other companies provide, create the best. Did they succeed every time? No. Because not every business succeeds every time. But we are part of promoting economic freedom, and we're being attacked by somebody who never worked in the private sector a day in his life.

Nancy Cordes: So does this mean that Democrats are learning the lessons of some of the, of some of the messaging that you taught to Republicans? Which is demonize the elite? Republicans -

Frank Luntz: No, no, no -

Nancy Cordes: Republicans went after Democrats, went after President Obama, he's from Harvard, he doesn't understand us. And it looks like Democrats are now taking a page from that playbook and saying, you know, he's all about corporate America, he doesn't understand you -

Frank Luntz: You mean Nancy Pelosi against George Bush. You mean Harry Reid against George W. Bush. You mean what the Democrats did when they were in Congress and they controlled the House and the Senate and how they brought legislation to a standstill.

Nancy Cordes: I remember that they attacked him for a number of things, but this whole argument of being the elite is bad seems to be something -

Frank Luntz: But it's not the elite -

Nancy Cordes: That was started in the last election.

Frank Luntz: But that's not what's worked. And yes these attacks on Romney have worked. But it's not because it's the elite. In fact when they started it that way it failed. It's because people look at this company and they're trying to decide what kind of person Mitt Romney is. Does he understand me, does he understand my concerns, does he understand my fears as well as my hopes and dreams? And what Bain does is, because Bain is dollars and cents, and let's face it - if you want to balance this budget, if you want to cut the debt, you're going to have to make some tough choices. And that's what Bain does. It's not an emotional - Bain is not something from the heart. Bain is: we're going to invest here, we're going to stop investing there. You make difficult decisions which is what we expect our presidents to do is to make difficult decisions that will have a long-term positive impact on the country. And so it makes for a decent campaign attack against Mitt Romney. But in reality those who know anything in the business, including Democratic governor Ed Rendell, Democratic Mayor Cory Booker, there's an endless number of Democrats who are saying don't do this, this is a good company. 183456

Nancy Cordes: So then what do you think that the Romney campaign needs to do. I was reading, I think it was Charlie Cook who wrote about this recently, saying he doesn't understand why the Romney campaign hasn't done more to humanize Mitt Romney, to bring out a positive message, to run positive ads, to get people to know him better as a person so that some of these attacks which are typical of any campaign slide off.

Frank Luntz: I agree with that. I think Charlie is very smart and he's put his finger on what's the challenge for the Romney campaign. And by the way, two weeks from now if you had me sit on this couch in this room (hopefully it would be cleaned by then) we would be talking about why doesn't Barack Obama understand it. Because if you remember two weeks ago it was Obama who couldn't say anything right. And he's still talking about how businesses aren't the reason they're successful. I don't know where that came from.

Nancy Cordes: Doesn't seem to be a winning strategy -

Frank Luntz: Number one: People want to be respected for what they do and they want to be appreciated, and they expect their elected officials to understand their hopes and fears. Number two, they don't want to go backward. They want to know what you did, but what they really want to know is what you're going to do. Number three, they want a level of credibility that when you make a promise, a pledge or commitment, that you have some semblance of the likelihood of keeping it. And number four, it's not just what the other person did wrong, it's what you did right. And for the short term I believe Obama's got the advantage in the short term by his strategy. But in the long term, he is not explaining why unemployment is still above eight percent, why we've got the biggest federal deficits ever in American history. Why he added more to the debt than the first 40 presidents combined. Why he chooses to attack and attack and attack. Virtually all of his ads in Ohio - the states that matter - Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, Florida, Virginia, they're all negative ads. You're the president. You've been president for three-and-a-half years. What have you done? He doesn't talk about it. He only attacks Mitt Romney. Now I agree with your premise, that it has had an impact. But in the end voters are going to say to him, Dude you're the man in charge. It's not enough for you to tell me why your opponent isn't good. You've got to prove to me that you deserve another four years. And he's not doing it.

Nancy Cordes: Do you think that the Obama campaign will make that pivot? I mean obviously they got hammered by these Republican primary candidates and basically took it for nine months. And now you know they're finally engaging and working to define Mitt Romney. Do you think they will pivot at some point, or do you think that this, this fight is going to be over these small ball things like taxes, and you know what year you left your company all the way through the election?

Frank Luntz: Well for millions of Americans taxes and I don't mean what Mitt Romney paid but the tax policy is not small ball. 183802

Nancy Cordes: Right, that's important. I'm talking about how many years of taxes Romney releases.

Frank Luntz: Probably I would ask a simple question: if you don't have much to defend, maybe your only hope is to attack.

Nancy Cordes: Why do you think Romney doesn't just put a few more years of tax records on the table? 183821

Frank Luntz: Because when you do it, and you know your profession better than anyone, you've got a couple sheets which gives you a couple questions there. If you had ten sheets, I'd be nervous. I would know that this thing would last forever. At two pages I know that at some point I will be set free.

Nancy Cordes: It's not that bad is it?

Frank Luntz: It's the same thing. What I did not expect is that "Face to Face" is really face to face. I was expecting Face to arm of couch to open space to other arm of couch. So I give credit to CBS because you really do bring you all closer to the news.

Nancy Cordes: This is the web, baby.

Frank Luntz: Yes and I feel closer to you all already. I think that, in the end, Romney wins if he focuses on the economy and Obama wins if he focuses on Mitt Romney. And so you've got these two battles going back and forth. Really, the loser is the American people because they have the right to know what these candidates are going to do. They have the right to know where they stand. And they have the right to hold both candidates accountable.

Nancy Cordes: I want to talk a little bit about Congress -

Frank Luntz: Do we have to?

Nancy Cordes: Obviously that's what I focus on, I know it can be a little depressing sometimes.

Frank Luntz: An 11 percent job approval rating. Qaddafi has a 14 percent job approval rating and that was among the people who killed him!

Nancy Cordes: I know you work with a lot of House Republicans. What do you tell them? They ran against an ineffective Congress two years ago, Republicans won the majority. Now Congress is less popular than ever. What's their argument for reelection?

Frank Luntz: And they don't differentiate between the Senate who refuses to vote for anything. The amazing thing is that the House has voted for more jobs, voted for lower taxes, voted for reduced regulation, and nobody knows about it because the Senate wouldn't take any of those issues up. You've got all this legislation that's waiting on the desk -

Nancy Cordes: These are not necessarily bipartisan pieces of legislation, these are Republican visions knowing the Democrats are not going to go along with it.

Frank Luntz: But then vote on it. Vote on it. There is no rationale, there is no legitimate reason why you don't vote on it. So the people are mad. They're also mad at Senate Democrats. So what you could have is, which I think will happen, I think Republicans will lose some seats in the House - 10 or 12. I think Democrats are going to lose some seats in the Senate, and they may lose control. Republicans will not lose control of the House. Democrats may lose control of the Senate as a result of this anger against incumbents. The Democrats, I'll give you some states: Michigan, Missouri, Florida, the retiring in Wisconsin and North Dakota and Nebraska may go Republican. And the Republicans have some challenges in Maine and in Massachusetts. But in the end this anti-incumbent mood will cost House Republicans, but it's going to cost Senate Democrats, too.

Nancy Cordes: On taxes, which is going to be a huge fight between now and the end of the year on whether to extend some or all of the Bush tax cuts, how are you advising Republicans to talk about this? because polls do show that a lot of Americans are fine with letting the tax cuts expire for the top two percent of Americans.

Frank Luntz: Seventy-one percent support raising taxes on (inaudible)

Nancy Cordes: It would cost a lot of money, I think it's $700 billion over ten years to extend the tax cuts for those Americans. Republicans are the party of deficit cutting. So how do Republicans thread this needle, and should they? Or should they say, you know, okay, maybe we'll be willing to barter on that point.

Frank Luntz: It's not for me to tell them what they should say. But I will say this. the American people know full well that Washington wastes so much. That there is so little accountability that even when you try to hold these agencies and institutions accountable that they fight you on it. Until Washington gets its act together, why waste taxes on anybody, because you know that the money's going to be wasted? You know it's not going to go to deficit or debt reduction. Until you have control of the spending - you basically put them into handcuffs or stuff them into a couch like this, into a corner where they cannot get out - until that's done, then don't raise taxes on anyone. And the public, by the way, believes in that.

Nancy Cordes: But is that, is that realistic? When you've got these two parties and they need to come to a compromise on spending, you know Democrats are not going to make big compromises there if Republicans aren't going to make some compromises on the revenue side.

Frank Luntz: You're right. I want to say, and -

Nancy Cordes: And, so...

Frank Luntz: That's why we have this mess. But in the end if you ask the public is it because we tax too little or we spend too much, overwhelmingly it's because we spend too much. So if you can get control of the spending then it's legitimate to ask Republicans, okay let's take a look at revenue. But until you start with the spending, nobody wants to start with the revenue.

Nancy Cordes: Right. What do you think is going to be, aside from the economy, the main issue in the presidential campaign? You've been doing polling, you've been looking at the numbers, you've been talking to people in swing states. You've been out on this messaging tour -

Frank Luntz: Look at me I'm exhausted -

Nancy Cordes: I think you look fresh as a daisy. Tell me a little about what people are telling you.

Frank Luntz: I'm sorry I fell asleep. 184336 It's character, it's attributes. Yeah the issues matter, but it's also who you are, what you're about. Do you understand? Do you feel their pain and their anxiety? And do you have a problem-solving capability. Can you address it? Barack Obama's got the advantage on the feeling their pain. I like to say that he caused their pain, but he feels it while he was causing it. Mitt Romney is a problem-solver, but he doesn't give off that sense of I get it, I feel it, I understand it. So I don't know who the Americans are going to vote for. The empathizer-in-chief, or the problem-solver-in-chief. 184412

Nancy Cordes: You really don't know?

Frank Luntz: If I had to say right now on July, whatever date this is -

Nancy Cordes: I think it's the eighteenth.

Frank Luntz: On July 18th, I'd give the edge to Obama. And there was one point there for about two weeks where I said I couldn't choose, and I hate doing that because I'm a pollster and supposed to give a projection. Now I think Obama has taken the edge again. And I will say this. I am watching two states. I had it down to one and now it's back up to two, which is Ohio and Virginia.

Nancy Cordes: Virginia?

Frank Luntz: 184439 You tell me who wins both those states, I don't care what happens to the rest of the 48 states, I don't care, I don't look at national polling data. I don't even look at state-by-state. Except for Ohio and Virginia. 184450

Nancy Cordes: And who does it hinge on in those states? Is it Hispanics? Is it young people? Obviously it's independents -

Frank Luntz: There's something weird going on in both those states. You've got blue collar, working class Democrats that are voting Republican for the first time because Barack Obama's anti-coal. You have suburban women voting Democrat for the first time because they don't like Bain. And so you've got this cross-current and people are actually switching their votes in these states. Everything else is solid. Everyone who voted for McCain is voting for Romney. Everyone who voted for Obama's voting for Obama. But these five or six percent, the swing voters, it's too early to see where they go. 184533

Nancy Cordes: Isn't it amazing that it's all going to come down to these niche voters?

Frank Luntz: Two point eight percent of Americans will decide how the other 97.2 percent live. And they will spend $2 billion on that 2.8 percent. It would be better if they just bought them a steak dinner. 184548

Nancy Cordes: I would not want to be one of those voters.

Frank Luntz: Oh I would love it. I'd be like hey, cut my yard, plow my driveway and I want you to do weeding. And if you do a good job, I'll vote for you.

Nancy Cordes: Well none of that's going to happen, but they will get a lot of attention between now and election day.

Frank Luntz: You do my housework, you get my vote.

Nancy Cordes: Oh I am with you on that. Frank Luntz, thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate it here on this comfy couch. And thank you for joining us for "Face to Face." You can catch "Face the Nation" with Bob Schieffer on Sunday. Check your local listings. I'm Nancy Cordes. Have a great day.