Myths About Conservative Voters

Why, why, why, did the Washington Post give over space to discredited GOP hack Frank Luntz over the weekend?

Luntz, as part of the Post’s “five myths” feature, writes about what he calls “five myths about conservative voters.” But exactly why should we believe Luntz’s version of the truth, which he (for most of the items) pulls from his own polling — which is well known for producing the answers that he wants. For example: Luntz begins by claiming that conservative voters are not, after all, interested in smaller government — only in more efficient government. Is that true? I have no idea. What Luntz reports is that the words “‘efficient’ and ‘effective’ government clearly beat ‘less’ and ‘smaller’ government.” But that says nothing at all — nothing — about people’s real policy preferences, if any. It just tells us what words poll better. I mean, presumably people would also like “good” or “excellent” or “awesome” government, too. So what? There is no policy clash between those who favor effective government and those who prefer ineffective. But there certainly are disputes about the size of government. What do conservatives believe about that — or about real decisions, such as what should be done about military spending or specific programs? No hint of that from Luntz.

Basically, there’s nothing much to take away from his piece. That’s true when I suspect he’s mostly wrong (in the abstract, I’m pretty sure that self-identified conservatives do in fact prefer smaller government, although that changes when you move to specific programs). It’s also true when he’s probably right — as in his claim that conservatives oppose slashing Social Security and Medicare. Granted, his argument there is a bit strange. Is it a myth that conservative voters want to slash these programs, and that “This charge is at the heart of the Democrats’ campaign against the GOP”? Uh, no. What’s at the heart of the Democrats’ campaign is that Republican politicians plan to slash Medicare. Which is, you know, true. Indeed, the reason that Democrats are campaigning on it is because Democrats believe that it’s an issue on which Republican voters do not agree with the plans of Republican politicians. Which is why Luntz advises Republicans to talk about making these programs “work,” instead of admitting that they’re cutting spending on Medicare.

The problem is that playing with words to find out whether ones test best just doesn’t tell us anything interesting, whether it’s done by Luntz for the Republicans or his equivalents for the Democrats. Oh, it proves that most voters can be easily manipulated into giving the polling result that the pollster wants to produce — but that doesn’t mean that they can be easily manipulated into actually changing their minds about policy, or that they can therefore be easily manipulated into changing who they vote for. Both parties are suckers when they pay to get this kind of advice, and the WaPo is a sucker to run it.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.