MANCHESTER, N.H. — He was not exactly short, but he seemed low to the ground. His shirt of vertical stripes notwithstanding, he was wide. He wore baggy, wrinkled khakis hoisted up by a brown leather belt and cuffed at the ankles to reveal black-and-red sneakers. His brown hair was wild and stiff, like the bristles on an old toothbrush. Amid the crowd of geriatric Arkansans and professional-seeming Chipper Young Democrats, he looked out of place.
Frank Luntz was at a Hillary Clinton rally, and he had a few criticisms.
A man in the audience began to chant, “I believe that she will win!” encouraging others to join in, and Luntz rolled his eyes. “This is so manufactured,” he told me. “Come on, you’ve got the guy who’s trying to do the cheers. It just doesn’t look real.”
Luntz is a Republican pollster who rose to prominence in 1994, when he helped draft the Contract With America, so a lack of enthusiasm for Clinton isn’t exactly surprising. This is surprising, however: “My favorite rallies of them all are Bernie Sanders rallies,” he said. “I don’t agree with him, but I actually feel good!”
In Iowa and New Hampshire (with a stop at the Super Bowl in between) Luntz could be spotted attending meetings and rallies with a small posse of unexpected guests, from CEOs to Hollywood producer Charles Shyer, in tow. He brought Richard Dreyfuss, the Oscar-winning actor and National Rifle Association critic, to see Ted Cruz and Glenn Beck in Ames. I saw him at a Clinton rally in Des Moines, wobbly walking through the press area and into the crowd.
In New Hampshire on Monday, Luntz had planned on eight campaign stops, including a warm and fuzzy Sanders event, as a pick-me-up, and a Donald Trump rally, which would be his first.
“Trump’s got the authenticity,” he said, “but I’m not sure if I like the, uh, I’m not sure if that passion isn’t a little bit too much. I’ve had to deal with protesters. I don’t want protesters harmed. I don’t want protesters roughed up.”
Luntz has made a career out of semantics and red-white-and-blue bullshit. He helps politicians find new ways to say something other than what they really mean. He uses polls and focus groups and dial tests to determine what makes the American people tick, and then he informs the conservative political class, so that they can tinker with their emotions.
In the 1990s and early aughts, he famously did this by leaking memos to the press, but nowadays he often does it on Fox News. In 2004, the New Republic wrote that “to Luntz, there is no lemon that can’t be sold to the American people, who, in his memos, invariably come off as a sad sack of humanity, as easily manipulated as a classroom of kindergarteners.”
When you Google Frank Luntz, the results display a few of his most profound quotes: “What matters most in politics is personality. It’s not issues, it’s not image. It’s who you are and what you represent,” and, “Politics is gut; commercials are gut.”
On the ground in the caucus and primary states, Luntz likes to feel out voters, to get into their heads. “Why?” he asks them. “That’s it, Why?”
“I also wanna know intensity, I wanna know the passion behind it, I wanna know who’s gonna vote,” he said.
Danny Wright, Luntz’s friend who said “I’m like his black, adopted child,” told me Luntz’s presence at Democratic functions was all about the art of war. “When you have a side, it’s best to understand the other side.”
He noticed that Luntz was wearing a press badge with Clinton’s “H” logo on it, and he went to snap a photo. Luntz gave him the middle finger.
In 2014, The Atlantic reported that Luntz was in the midst of an existential crisis. He was dismayed by the mood of the American people and he felt complicit in having further divided the country.
“I’m still pessimistic,” he told me. That’s why he loves to be in the crowd with Sanders supporters, because they’re so happy, so full of hope.
At a rally, he said, he’s assessing every minor detail. “I’m looking at what buttons [people are wearing],” he said. He pointed to a woman in front of us. “She’s got a button there and a sticker there.”
“I’m looking at the press people to see how engaged they are,” he said.
But he’s looking, most of all, for signs that the spectacle isn’t fake. “Who’s authentic?” he said. “Who’s real?”
Just then, a sound guy glanced at Luntz’s press badge and asked which news outlet he was with.
“I’m with God,” Luntz said. “I’ve come with God and I go with God.”
One of his aides leaned in close to him.
“If you want to make Sanders, we need to leave here by a quarter to,” he said.