Frank Luntz Plays Favorites With Marco Rubio

The GOP focus-group leader made big bucks building the candidate’s image in Florida a decade ago

Republican pollster Frank Luntz stacked the deck for Rubio in the Iowa focus group.
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
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Feb. 4, 2016, 8 p.m.

Polit­ic­al junkies who fol­low Re­pub­lic­an mes­saging guru Frank Luntz know how he felt that Marco Ru­bio per­formed in the most re­cent GOP pres­id­en­tial de­bate—his tele­vised fo­cus group, his Twit­ter stream, and his in­ter­views left no doubt that he’s a Ru­bio fan.

What they prob­ably don’t know about is Luntz’s close re­la­tion­ship with Ru­bio over the years, and how Ru­bio paid Luntz’s firm a third of a mil­lion dol­lars to pro­duce and pro­mote a book that Ru­bio used to im­prove his statewide name re­cog­ni­tion in Flor­ida a dec­ade ago.

It’s not clear wheth­er Fox News was aware of that his­tory when it broad­cast Luntz quizz­ing fo­cus-group mem­bers fol­low­ing the de­bate, eli­cit­ing re­sponses such as “con­fid­ent,” “elo­quent,” elect­able,” and “pres­id­en­tial.” (But not fol­low­ing up with one dis­sid­ent who called Ru­bio an “at­tract­ive op­por­tun­ist.”)

Fox did not re­spond to a Na­tion­al Journ­al query. Nor did Luntz, a pop­u­lar con­sult­ant in Re­pub­lic­an circles whose cli­ents, ac­cord­ing to Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion re­cords, have in­cluded House Speak­er Paul Ry­an, Rep. Tom Price of Geor­gia, and the Amer­ic­an Cross­roads su­per PAC in re­cent years.

Between May 2005 and Au­gust 2007, when Ru­bio was first speak­er-des­ig­nate and then speak­er of the House, the Re­pub­lic­an Party of Flor­ida paid Luntz’s con­sult­ing com­pan­ies a total of $345,451, ac­cord­ing to Flor­ida Di­vi­sion of Elec­tions fil­ings. That was the peri­od when Luntz helped Ru­bio pro­duce his “100 In­nov­at­ive Ideas” pro­ject, which in­cluded a book of policy pro­pos­als that Ru­bio pushed dur­ing his two years in charge of the state House.

(Iron­ic­ally, one of the ideas that Ru­bio suc­cess­fully im­ple­men­ted was mov­ing the Flor­ida pres­id­en­tial primary in­to late Janu­ary in 2008, which forced Iowa, New Hamp­shire, and South Car­o­lina to move their con­tests even earli­er. Luntz de­fen­ded the pro­pos­al in a 2006 St. Peters­burg Times art­icle: “You could po­ten­tially have someone who by­passes Iowa and New Hamp­shire and fo­cuses on Flor­ida.”)

In 2007, Luntz praised Ru­bio’s 100 Ideas pro­ject in a Wash­ing­ton Post op-ed, writ­ing that it brought for­ward “the prin­ciples of good gov­ern­ment and polit­ic­al ac­count­ab­il­ity.” That art­icle also failed to men­tion his role in the book’s pro­duc­tion and pro­mo­tion—a pro­ject that boos­ted Ru­bio’s name around the state, lay­ing the ground­work for his suc­cess­ful U.S. Sen­ate run in 2010.

Mike Fas­ano, a Re­pub­lic­an who served with Ru­bio in the state le­gis­lature, said he was aware that the party had paid for Luntz’s work, but had not known how much. “Oh, my Lord. I’m in the wrong busi­ness,” said Fas­ano, now the elec­ted tax col­lect­or of Pasco County. “When you have a guy like Frank who col­lects a pro-Marco group, of course they’re go­ing to say that Marco won.”

Luntz’s praise began not long after the de­bate began last Thursday. Just 12 minutes in, Luntz de­clared in a tweet: “Ex­cel­lent start for him to­night.” Halfway through, at 9:51 pm, Luntz tweeted: “This is @Mar­coR­u­bio’s best de­bate so far. He’s mak­ing people switch over to him.”

Of Luntz’s 29 tweets dur­ing the de­bate, eight com­pli­men­ted Ru­bio. A ninth offered Ru­bio some ad­vice: “SLOW DOWN! You’ve got great words, but you’re say­ing them too fast.”

Luntz’s glow­ing as­sess­ment did not square with many oth­ers who watched the de­bate, in­clud­ing Fox’s own Charles Krau­tham­mer, who in post-de­bate ana­lys­is said Ru­bio had “his rock­i­est night” of all the de­bates thus far.

In ad­di­tion to the mil­lions of Fox view­ers who saw Luntz and his group im­me­di­ately after the de­bate, Ru­bio’s win­ning im­pres­sion with the group was widely re­por­ted by oth­er me­dia, in­clud­ing CNN, Busi­ness In­sider, and The Dal­las Morn­ing News.

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