VAIL • Words matter, and words have never mattered in American politics more than they do now.
That was among the messages delivered in a fast-paced presentation by pollster and communications guru Frank Luntz to western-state governors on Tuesday at the Western Governors Association’s annual meeting here.
“What happens in our political system, what happens to you all, isn't determined by what you say; it's determined by what people hear,” he said.
Striding back and forth in front of the dozen governors — including Colorado Gov. Jared Polis — who sat in front of a packed ballroom, Luntz said: “I know that you have done some great things to get to where you are, but it is amazing to me how many elected officials are still separated from their voters because they think they gave a great speech but they don't realize the voters heard something quite different.”
Luntz has been famous for decades for crafting the language of the right. It was Luntz who proposed calling the estate tax the “death tax” and was awarded PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year award in 2010 for suggesting Republicans refer to health care reform as a “government takeover.”
But in recent years, as his polling and focus groups have revealed just how bitterly divided Americans have become, Luntz has taken on a new mission: Helping politicians heal the rifts. And he suggested the nation’s governors could be in a unique position to bring people together.
“Governors operate differently than congressmen, senators, and the president. Governors are seen as doing a job and solving issues,” he said.
“America is more divided than any time in my lifetime,” Luntz said as he flashed slides on screens displaying the results of in-depth surveys he's conducted recently.
“And if you think you're divided, then you behave differently, you speak differently, you treat people differently.”
Americans believe the biggest rift is between Republicans and Democrats, his polling has found, followed by a perceived divide between the government and the people, and a divide between rich and poor.
“You have a fundamental responsibility to show people that government is of them — and they don't believe that now,” Luntz said. “It's not them versus us, yet the American people see it that way. You have to find out how to humanize it, to personalize it, to individualize it. … There is a way to do this, to set up your principle sand your beliefs without destroying other people.”
It’s a steep climb, he said, as his slides showed example after example of the divisions Americans perceive, including majorities across the political spectrum who believe the system is rigged against everyday Americans.
“My God," he said. "This is awful.”
Noting that the recent college-entrance scandal demonstrates that even the education system is “rigged” — on top of the stock market and elections — Luntz shook his head and added: “What isn't rigged in this country right now?”
He recalled a focus group he ran for CBS’s “60 Minutes” two nights before the 2016 election when he left the room in frustration.
“They were so mean to each other; they were yelling. I could not stop it. Twenty-five people in a room, and they would not stop yelling at each other, and I walked off — you actually see it happen.”
Another slide displayed the topics Americans say they care the most about, with health care and immigration topping the list.
“The things that matter most to people are the things we're most polarized on,” he said. “Every issue, there is no middle ground anymore. We've gone to our camps.”
Luntz had plenty of tips for the governors, including a list of words he said his testing has shown communicate more effectively.
For example, instead of saying “everyone wins” — a stock phrase in many a political speech — Luntz told the governors to say “everyone benefits.”
His list of “words for the 21st century” included “imagine,” “commitment,” “responsibility” and “mutual respect.” He also suggested using some words and losing others — “freedom” instead of “liberty,” “priorities” instead of “principles,” and “community” or “neighborhood” rather than “society.”
As an example, Luntz elucidated why it’s better to talk about making things “cleaner, safer and healthier” rather than talking about “sustainability.”
“If you talk about sustainability, you are preserving the status quo. If you are 'cleaner,' 'safer' 'healthier,' you are doing something better for the people you represent,” he said. “That change alone, you make a difference with your constituents.”
Another common political word he suggested retiring was “tolerance.” Instead, talk about “mutual respect,” he said.
“Tolerance is the lowest level — 'I will tolerate you.' You know that's what Hillary said to Bill at some point,” he said, drawing laughter from the audience.
“What we are looking for in society is mutual respect. That doesn't mean agreement, and it doesn't mean endorsing, but mutual respect is the communication that we're on the same level and we can resolve something.”
It's a message that Polis told Trail Mix he heard loud and clear.
“A lot of language we already use, but we certainly got some excellent guidance about connecting with people and making sure we're listening to the real concerns of voters so that I can be their voice,” Polis said in an interview.
Much of Luntz’s advice centered on approaching constituents differently.
“The best thing you can do is begin your town halls with silence and ask the simple question, 'Who [drove] here 30 minutes?’” he said. “Then ask who drove an hour, who drove the farthest.
"The three people who drove the farthest, you personally take the microphone and you say, 'Before I speak, if it matters that much to you, it matters that much to me, I want to hear you speak,' and you hand them the microphone. That demonstrates respect, it demonstrates dignity, it shows you will listen to them."
It’s critical, he said, to spend as much time asking questions as answering them at town halls.
“It changes the dynamic of communication for people who feel they are either ignored or forgotten.”
During Luntz’s presentation, Polis asked: “Is there anything to be gained by trying to respectfully approach the people who sort of really hate us? Is there a way to gain mutual respect with people who really hate everything we do?”
Luntz said that in the past he would have said no, “but now it's absolutely necessary.”
“Because they hate what they don't know, so they have an assumption of you,” Luntz said. “And you come and you say for the next hour, I'm going to let you do it, and I'm going to take notes.”
Luntz added that taking notes while listening to constituents at town halls is a simple technique that can produce profound results.
After hearing from Luntz, Polis told Trail Mix that his approach “has always been very forward-facing and accessible, but when there's folks that show up and just sort of yell at me, … you just sort of wonder what to do.”
He recalled a young man who showed up at a meet-and-greet in Fort Morgan who “just sort of read his thing about it and didn't seem too interested in listening to me. I just thanked him for sharing his viewpoint. But we always want to engage with everybody. It would be great, and I hope that people on the other side want to sit down with us, because we always have an open-door policy, and we've had great civic participation.”
Polis added that his administration isn’t only relying on town halls to interact with Coloradans.
“There's different ways that people like to interact — we interact on social media with people, we attend community meetings and group meetings, we've had town halls. What we find is, you meet people where they are; not everybody wants to take an evening to go to a town hall. So that is a good way to reach out, but there are a lot of other ways we reach out, too.”