Newsletter - February 2010

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We begin the 2010 election season just as 2008 ended: a deeply divided country suffering from a loss of hope and a loss of confidence in the leaders and institutions that govern us. That was until an off-year election in Massachusetts shocked the nation and rocked Washington. But the greatest gap in hope and confidence is not between Republicans and Democrats. It resides between the American people and their elected leaders.

As people at the top get bailouts and people at the bottom get handouts, most folks in the middle are left wondering… when will they remember me?  As the economy continues to languish in strangulation and public debt piles higher than three generations of Americans could ever surmount, Americans are questioning…. were the trillions of dollars we borrowed and spent really worth it?  The answer, according to virtually every poll on the topic, is decidedly NO.

The crisis in confidence results from lofty promises and, so far, meager results.  Both parties are culpable and so neither is trusted.  For those of you who enjoy pop culture references, it’s a race to the bottom, much like Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber.

So who benefits on Election Day from this collapse in confidence?  You might expect us to say the Republican Party, but the answer is more complicated and less clear cut than the polls would indicate. 

A more accurate response is that we really don’t know.  The party that first realizes the American people just want to be leveled with – rather than bedazzled – will be the first out of the gate and across the finish line.  No more promises that everyone will benefit and no one will have to pay.  No more big bank bailouts while the rest of America is shut-out.   We are all in this together.  The only question is: when will Washington roll up its sleeves and start helping, rather than hurting?

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The net net:  The Democrats are at a perceptual disadvantage, but as the incumbent party, they will have a clear financial advantage as the election approaches.  The Republicans made significant gains in November, and they are even more popular today, but much can happen between now and Election Day to change the political landscape.

From where we sit, the GOP is poised to pick up between 25 and 30 seats, not enough for a clear majority or even an operating minority, but enough to stop much of what House Democrats seek to legislate.  Democrats who won in traditional Republican territory in the south and west in 2006-08 are particularly vulnerable this time.

On the Senate side, both Missouri and New Hampshire Republican incumbents are retiring, and the Democrats have made significant inroads in both states.  Conversely, the retirement of the incumbent Democrat in North Dakota represents an almost sure pick-up for the GOP, and two incumbents (Nevada’s Harry Reid, Arkansas’ Blanche Lincoln and Colorado’s Mike Bennett) are even or behind their challengers with 10 months to go.  Look for a GOP gain of two to three seats.


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The debate over the future of American healthcare dominated the national agenda for the better part of 2009 and, still unresolved, promises to set the tone of the critical election year of 2010. Let’s start with two fundamental truths from our research on the topic:

  1. The more American people learn about Washington’s plan, the less they like it.  They just do not – and will not – support this attempt at reform; and   
  2. The American people still overwhelmingly support meaningful healthcare reform that lowers costs, expands access, and protects quality. 

The problem, at its core, is credibility.  Most Americans – and critically, a majority of self-identified Independents – simply do not believe the President or Congress when they claim that a trillion dollar bill will magically lower costs.  In fact, a sizeable 61% of Americans believe it’s more likely that “we will discover life in outer space within the next 50 years” than healthcare reform won’t add to the deficit – and another 25% believe neither will happen.  (The Word Doctors, “Putting the Health in Healthcare Survey,” October 2009)

But it’s not just about cost that has turned off an increasing majority of Americans.  It’s even more about quality.  Despite the many deficiencies in American healthcare, strong majorities of Americans are satisfied with the quality of care they currently receive, and they do not believe that a government takeover of healthcare will leave that quality intact.  While President Obama has consistently claimed, “If you like your doctor, you can keep him,” our dial session participants have repeatedly replied, “But what if these new regulations and costs keep my doctor from keeping me?”

The final problem with the current Washington proposal is process – and this has three components. 

First, the public believes any legislation that is 2,000 pages long can’t possibly be good for them.  The fact that the Senate was voting on legislation that they clearly hadn’t read (or fully understood, as Illinois Senator Dick Durbin acknowledged candidly) didn’t just anger the public – it frightened them. 

Second, in an electorate where the growing political middle carries more and more weight, it was a fatal mistake for Democrats to muscle a bill without any Republican support.  Sure, the American people believe the Republicans don’t really want healthcare reform, but they also expect and demand that the legislation have genuine input from people across the political spectrum. 

And third, they’re sick and tired of lobbyists and loopholes determining public policy.  The “Cornhusker Kickback” for Senator Ben Nelson cemented what everyone suspected: that this bill was about politics, not practical common sense.  It is telling – even damning – that a Deep Blue state like New Jersey relatively easily elected a Republican governor who ran not only against the incumbent Democrat governor but also against “politics as usual” in Washington.

So what do the American people really want from healthcare?  In a word, they want it personalized.  Make no mistake: they have equal contempt for government bureaucrats and insurance bureaucrats who interfere with the sacred doctor-patient relationship.  They are still not convinced that Republican alternatives are any better than the Democrats.   That’s why, more than anything else… they just want everyone in Washington to go back to the drawing board and start over again.

If only someone in Washington would listen.

(The Word Doctors, "Putting the Health in Healthcare Survey," October 2009)


In a major national poll we conducted late last year, an astonishing 1% of Americans indicated they had “a great deal of confidence” in Corporate America – the same paltry percentage that felt “a great deal of trust and confidence” in Fortune 500 CEOs.  The social contract between employer and employee isn’t just shattered.  It’s dead.

This lack of confidence is having a profound impact on our workforce.  For example, when considering the best paths to financial security, Americans choose self-employment (46%) over working for an American corporation (36%).  The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well, even if the road to business success is more difficult to navigate.


For Corporate America, the message is clear: more and better communication with employees has become critical to their future viability.  Employees face constant and unrelenting pressure from management, who face constant and unrelenting pressure from corporate boards, shareholders, and even consumers, creating fear and anxiety on all sides.

Moreover, employee priorities have fundamentally changed.  In the past, opportunity to advance and happiness at work were Number One.  Today, it’s job security.  A decade ago, salary was the most important component of compensation.  Today, it’s healthcare.  The businesses that understand and appreciate the new economic reality will have a far better chance of surviving than those who cling to outdated attitudes and expectations.

It starts with listening.  It starts with communication.  Companies have to explain what they’re doing, why, and what it all means for the long term, or they will risk further undermining workplace confidence.  When it comes to employee communication remember that today, more is much better than less:

  • More conversations on a more regular basis with employees.
  • More relevant information about day-to-day employee responsibilities and a more personalized, individualized approach.
  • More training and skill development.
  • More consistency and predictability, and fewer surprises.

And while economic circumstances means you can’t eliminate the threat to job security and may not be able to give raises or bonuses this year, you can develop deeper and stronger bonds with your people in ways that cost nothing and generate new ideas that can help both your top and bottom lines.

As simple as it may sound, we continue to be amazed by the number of top companies today that still aren’t doing the things that matter more than most realize.  According to our polls, focus groups and instant response dial sessions, there are four specific areas that management needs improvement:

  • Say “thank you” for a job well done
  • Listen, listen, listen.  Before you can lead, you need to learn from your employees.
  • Celebrate success  – not at the end of a project, but at each step along the way
  • Recognize contributions.  Not once a year or once a quarter.  Not even once a month.  Every day, recognize the contribution of an employee.

The most successful managers in 2010 will focus on the things that will inspire us.  These leaders will help us break down enormous challenges into bite-size, achievable tasks.  They will lead us to victory through encouragement and celebration, and help us appreciate what we have and what we can achieve.

And if we’re lucky, they may even make us laugh.

Editor’s note: The next newsletter will focus on how employees jeopardize their own employment security and what they can do to avoid the behaviors that could cost them their jobs.  


Americans want and expect Washington to take action this year to make America more energy independent and energy self-sufficient.  In fact, when it comes to energy and the environment, the Number One priority is to reduce the dependence on Middle Eastern oil and increase energy production right here at home.  And while we're at it, we want our domestic energy to be cleaner and healthier by focusing on renewable sources -- including nuclear, solar and wind.

Yet when it comes to “climate change,” the thing Americans care about least is … climate change. This is true despite our finding that a majority of Americans believe the quality of the world’s air, water, and general environment has worsened over the last decade. We also discovered that a majority of Americans believe climate change is either definitely (33%) or probably (21%) occurring, and that it is either definitely (41%) or probably (22%) caused in some way by humans.

An honest read of public opinion indicates the ongoing hesitancy to to support “cap and trade” revolves around those words, not the philosophy behind the words.  Americans overwhelmingly support the actions – reduced dependence on Middle Eastern oil, more American jobs, cleaner air and water, and advanced technology developed right here – that would be triggered by cap and trade policy.

But the words "cap and trade" frighten more than they calm, and in this case, words matter – a lot.   Change the name “cap and trade” to something less technical and you'll see overt support for the underlying policy increase.  And return the legislation to its original, simple, revenue-neutral form and you'll find across the board support.

Let me be clear: the public does want cleaner, safer, healthier, more secure sources of energy.  Above all, Americans want to break our dependence on foreign oil. They consider our reliance on Middle Eastern countries worrisome – if not downright frightening.  In our polling conducted in late 2009, pitted against economic and environmental arguments, the positive impact on national security is three times more popular (60%) than the benefits to the economy (20%) or the environment (19%).  The public recognizes the economic benefits of leading the world in developing the energy technologies of the future – but removing American entanglements across the globe is still a higher priority.

In essence, Americans want the effects of climate change legislation done right – greater national security, economic leadership, and a healthy living environment. But at a time when America is flirting with a double-dip recession and thousands are still losing their jobs, a policy shift will have to do better than tidy up our air and water. It needs to demonstrate that our nation will be more secure economically as well as militarily.

Only then will Americans truly warm to specific action on climate change.


It’s been exactly one year since Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Riding into the White House on a wave of public frustration with the previous administration, he began his first week in the Oval Office with an unprecedented 68% approval rating – scoring well among almost every demographic and geographic group in America.

However, after a series of missteps and an aggressive agenda that is nevertheless opposed by an increasing number of Americans, he enters his second year with the distinction of holding the second lowest job approval of any president since 1952.  Only Ronald Reagan, suffering through an economic recession, had worse approval scores one year into his presidency.

A critical reason why Obama’s poll numbers continue to slip (currently at 47% approve) may be the President’s poor policy prioritization. As unemployment sits at a devastating 10% and Americans in poll after poll continue to prioritize job creation over everything else, the White House continues to focus heavily on health care issues. While a majority of Americans agree, in principle, to some sort of health care reform, only 14% of Americans think it is the most important issue facing the nation.

On foreign policy and national security issues, Obama’s popularity is also falling.  Today a majority (55%) of Americans disagree with Obama’s promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. That number is up from a year ago when only 46% of the public said the prison should remain open.

If the first polls of 2010 can teach us anything about presidential politics, it’s that impressive speeches and lofty rhetoric have a diminishing marginal effect on approval ratings. As Americans worry about paying college tuitions, stress about rising health care costs, and pray they don’t lose their jobs (if they haven’t already), they expect real results from their President.  It’s not the bold policy pronouncements they care about.  It’s the day-to-day quality of life challenges that really matter most.

After one year in office, it remains much too early to gauge Obama’s re-election prospects. In fact, several Presidents, including Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, all watched their approval ratings dip below 50% during their first term but still managed to win re-election.  The challenge for the President is to decide whether he wants to represent all Americans or just those who voted for him in 2008 – and whether he truly believes that there are no red states or blue states but only the United States.

We know you're busy, and that's why you won't hear from us often.  But whether it's to provide timely, exclusive information or offer you the chance to take a survey or participate in a focus group, we appreciate your interest in what we do.  If you have any suggestions, ideas and comments on how we can make this experience better for you, let us know.

And remember, it's not what you say, it's what people hear.


Dr. Frank Luntz & The Word Doctors Team