The New York Times

August 22, 2004

The Alchemy of a Political Slogan


BY Nov. 2, fewer and fewer Republicans may be talking about John Edwards's former career as a trial lawyer, at least so says one Republican pollster. They will, however, be more than happy to talk about Mr. Edwards's past as a "personal-injury lawyer."

"A `trial lawyer' is someone you see on television during prime time, like one of the characters from `Law & Order,' " said Frank Luntz of the Luntz Research Companies in Alexandria, Va., who has been supplying Republicans with lethal locutions harvested from focus groups since working with Newt Gingrich on the Contract With America. "A `personal injury lawyer' is the person you see on TV at 1:30 in morning, saying to call him if you want to sue someone. A `trial lawyer' is O.K. It suggests you have a skill. A `personal injury' lawyer suggests you're a shyster."

Mr. Edwards, however, who happens to be one of the first trial lawyers (or whatever) in North Carolina to use focus groups to predict how testimony might play to a jury, generally avoids the phrase entirely when describing himself. "Trial lawyer" is often used by the political right to suggest a group that is antibusiness.

If you are a politician, perhaps nothing is more important than defining yourself before the opposition does, and one way you do so is with the words you choose.

If some Americans found it odd that Gov. James E. McGreevey of New Jersey chose to out himself using mannered terminology "I am a gay American," as opposed to "I am gay" they should not have. He did not choose it. As widely reported, it was supplied by a gay rights organization, which long ago tested it in focus groups as a way of shifting a public debate about sexual orientation to one about equal rights. In the same fashion, if voters find it strange that talk among Republicans in the presidential race changes mysteriously from "drilling for oil" to "exploring for oil," they will have focus groups to thank. Similarly, phrases like "climate change" and "death tax" entered into the public discourse only after the careful scrutiny of social scientists.

Focus groups are hardly new to American politics, but they have taken on new relevance in a country where the ideological divide whether about gay marriage or John Kerry versus George W. Bush has grown into a chasm, bridged only by a narrow group of undecided voters who may ultimately decide the issue. In such a landscape, it becomes increasingly crucial to test key phrases with the very people who might ultimately make the difference, if not to lift the words directly.

Focus groups, like many other modern political tools, have their origins on Madison Avenue. For decades, advertising copywriters have used them to vet slogans for products like laundry detergents, and Hollywood executives have relied on them to select endings for summer blockbusters. In the political world they were first used to test whether campaign ads were clear and compelling.

Despite often shadowy connotations, focus groups are simply small gatherings of regular people sitting around talking. Usually about a dozen, selected as representative of a particular demographic group, will sit with a moderator whose goal it is to prod them into candid debate on prescribed topics. The point, essentially, is to let the pollster hear their thoughts, and to give him a crash course in that demographic group's distinct vernacular.

"What you want is not only how your side views the issue but how the other side does," said Costas Panagopoulos, the executive director of the political campaign management program at New York University. "That way you can co-opt it and use it to your advantage."

Which is not to say that the parties themselves are eager to advertise that, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of "Packaging the Presidency" (Oxford University, 1997). The millions they spend to build their rhetorical arsenals would be wasted if the public knew explicitly what it suspects, that most political language is as processed as Velveeta.

Still, a savvy observer's head tends to cock, like a fox terrier hearing a high whistle, when he or she hears a few strains of distilled focus groupese. "Repetition is a clue," said Ms. Jamieson, who has moderated such groups. "It's safe to say that when you hear a phrase first in a speech, then it's repeated in ads and elsewhere, that it's been tested." To her ear, Mr. Bush's use of the phrase "turning the corner" sounds labored, unlike, say, Mr. Kerry's more generally extemporaneous promises of a more "sensitive" foreign policy. "It wasn't a smart choice of words, and it wasn't repeated," Ms. Jamieson explained.

With strong ties to Madison Avenue, Ms. Jamieson said, Republicans have tended to be at least one election cycle ahead of Democrats in adopting the latest marketing techniques, going back to the Eisenhower years. In the words of Lou Cannon, the Ronald Reagan biographer, Reagan experimented with "distant ancestors of focus groups" when running for governor of California in 1966. And they became de rigueur after Lee Atwater, the campaign manager for the first President Bush, began exulting about how extraordinarily the Willie Horton ads had tested.

While Democratic pollsters like Stanley B. Greenberg achieved minor celebrity working for Bill Clinton, Republicans continued to spin out poll-tested language as deadly as hollow-point bullets. It was focus groups that inspired Republicans to replace the phrase "tax cuts" something an, ugh, politician provides with "tax relief." Who could not use a little relief?

It was focus groups who reframed the "estate tax" as some odious-sounding affliction called the "death tax."

Kori Bernards, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, recalls when it was suddenly no longer fashionable for Republicans to speak of Democratic congressmen. "It was `Democrat congressman,' " she said. "That's not even grammatically correct, but for some reason, it was considered more effective."

But the Democrats have tallied victories as well. In the early 1990's, Democratic pollsters were surprised to learn that the phrase "religious right" was not effective in scaring moderates, said Celinda Lake, a pollster with Lake, Snell, Perry & Associates, who is working for groups like Planned Parenthood and America Coming Together, a Democratic umbrella advocacy organization. This was in part because many people think "right" means "correct," whatever the context. What seems wrong to them is "extremism" hence the sudden emphasis on "religious extremists."

"Global warming," Ms. Lake said, ran into similar confusion. "Every time we'd use the term in the winter, people would say, `It doesn't feel that warm to me,' " Ms. Lake recalled. So the talk these days is about "climate change," which sounds scarily permanent.

Activist groups have also found that the opposition can be useful in supplying the ammunition needed to beat it.

Governor McGreevey's phrase arose in focus groups run by pollsters like Ms. Lake and Geoffrey D. Garin, the president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates, for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based group, following what it considered the disastrous battle of gays in the military in the early 90's. "The problem was the rhetoric was all wrong," said Steven Fisher, the organization's communications director. "Gays had always talked about either sexual liberation or special rights, implying that they wanted something over and above what everyone else got. We adopted the phrase `gay American,' to neutralize the perceptions of otherness."

The main catchphrase of Naral Pro-Choice America "Who decides?" was originally blurted out by a woman at a focus group, Elizabeth Cavendish, the organization's interim president, said.

Activists of all types have learned similar lessons. In policy debates about the poor, Mr. Garin said, "any phrase that includes `working,' such as `the working poor' turns out to be increasingly credible phrases that connote effort and responsibility. People are willing to do a lot once you've crossed the threshold of individuals making the best efforts on their own."

But not everyone is sold on modern scientific methods of rhetorical divination that would seem alien to Reagan, let alone to Cicero.

Kenneth L. Khachigian, a longtime Republican speechwriter who worked for both Richard M. Nixon and Reagan, insists that he never saw any language for a Reagan speech milled into a fine dust by pollsters before it was delivered (though Richard Wirthlin, the Reagan pollster, ran focus groups on speeches after the fact).

"If you took a focus group and told them that Jimmy Carter was going to attack Reagan on Social Security, and Reagan was going to respond, `There you go again,' you probably would have assumed he'd lose," Mr. Khachigian said by telephone from his office in San Clemente, Calif. "But you couldn't have tested the way Reagan was going to say it, the tone of voice, the look on his face."

"It brings to mind something Richard Nixon used to always preach to me," Mr. Khachigian added. "Politics is not prose, it's poetry."

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