Democracy!” the Republican strategist Frank Luntz blurts as he bursts through the front door of Hoover High School in Des Moines, Iowa, and wades into a crowd of caucusgoers. Unaffiliated with any of the GOP candidates, he is four days removed from bringing Newt Gingrich to tears at a public forum by asking him a question about his late mother, a retweetable moment that added to the visibility of what for Luntz was already another high-profile electoral cycle, thanks to his frequent appearances as a Fox News commentator. Luntz’s signature segment is the live focus group. As he moves through the school, he conducts a rolling version, peppering voters with questions: “You guys married?” “You ever disagree?” “When you guys disagree, who wins?” “Who are you supporting?” “I like your shoes.” “Are you a new mom?” “This guy your husband?” “You don’t have to vote the same way, you know. We have the Nineteenth Amendment that gave you your freedom. Exercise it.”
Trailed by a client, a friend from L.A. (where Luntz now lives), and two aides, Luntz makes his way into the school’s gymnasium, arriving as a Rick Perry backer is giving an impassioned plea on his candidate’s behalf. The Perry guy turns to Luntz and asks him to address the rest of the voters. Luntz steps in front of the bleachers and struggles to button his coat over his paunch.
“They say television adds ten pounds? For me it’s twenty!” His audience bursts into laughter, but then Luntz turns serious. “You’re real people getting up and speaking out and defending their principles,” he says. “Just remember one thing: Treat each other with respect, civility, and decency. There’s too much yelling in politics now.” For someone who makes a living as the progenitor of ruthlessly effective talking points that have sharpened the partisan conflict in Washington (“death tax” and “climate change” are two of his coinages), Luntz approaches the grassroots process with disarming earnestness. He pairs a navy suit, apparently unironically, with custom K-Swiss sneakers dyed like an American flag.
His impromptu speech finished, Luntz has lost his entourage. He finds them in the auditorium. “It doesn’t mean shit to you,” he says. “But to me to be able to speak at a caucus? It’s a great thing!”
Luntz rushes off to check with volunteers counting tallies in what’s proving an ultratight race, then everyone piles into his rented SUV and heads to the sleek media center that Google has set up downtown. Under the interrogation-grade lighting, his cheeks appear crisscrossed with lines—cracks in the makeup applied for his Fox News spots earlier that day. Luntz slept for only an hour and a half the night before. “I started the day at the casino,” he’d told me earlier. “I lost $200!”
He eyes a tray of cupcakes. “Can I have a cupcake and you not write about it?” I tell him all pastry intake will be on the record. “Well, when you write I refused to have one, I’ll show it to people and say, ‘Look, I have fucking willpower!’ ”
It’s after eleven by the time we drop in on the Mitt Romney party at the Hotel Fort Des Moines. Luntz is staying here, but he has to make one more stop at Fox’s field headquarters to tape a segment for Fox & Friends. That wraps at close to 1 a.m., and we’re back in the SUV rolling through deserted streets, with Luntz staffer Ben Clarke at the wheel.
“I’m hungry,” Luntz announces. He directs Clarke to the Marriott. All the parking spots are taken. Luntz points at a no-parking zone. “Get some sack,” he tells Clarke.
“Get some sack?” asks his aide Alyssa Salvo from the back seat.
“I’m impressed with the way that just rolled off your tongue,” Clarke says.
“Well,” Luntz says, stepping out of the car, “I learn to match my language to the people I’m talking to. Ben went to Skidmore.”
The Marriott bar, unsurprisingly, is still thronged with reporters. Luntz beelines for the lobby souvenir shop and buys a box of vanilla Nestlé Dibs. Iowa congressman Steve King spots him and comes over to trade political gossip. Luntz tosses ice-cream candies into his mouth as they talk.
The circus is moving on to New Hampshire tomorrow, and Luntz has to be up at 6 a.m. for interviews with The Economist and NPR. But that’s not for another four hours. “Why are we done?” he asks, as we finally pull up to his hotel.
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