It made headlines last week when message man and Fox contributor Frank Luntz asked 26 Iowa voters about President Obama’s religion. Ten wrongly said he is Muslim. But lost in all of the hullabaloo was the game of political Survivor participants played that revealed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who’s survived his own personal trials, as Iowa’s fave, a finding sure to play into his decision next month on whether to get into the 2012 presidential race.
For Fox News, Luntz asked 26 Iowans who had voted in the 2008 Republican caucuses about their presidential leanings, and they matched polls showing who the current favorites are: Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Gingrich and, surprisingly, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Luntz then filled out the list with six other hopefuls—Rep. Michele Bachmann, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and South Dakota Sen. John Thune.
The rules: Like the television show Survivor, the 26 would discuss the candidates after Luntz showed videos of each. Then one would be voted out of the 2012 Iowa Caucus. Some went fast. Daniels was “boring,” Barbour’s southern accent was “a turnoff,” and Santorum was “yesterday’s news.” Romney went down next, labeled “another Obama.” Next was Thune, though the Iowans say he has potential. Christie, who doesn’t want to run, went next. The reason, says one panelist to Luntz, author of the hit Words That Work and the upcoming Win: “He doesn’t want the job, so why should we give it to him?”
The Iowans then argued for their favorites, like Pawlenty, whose “blue collar conservatism” and victories in Democratic-dominated Minnesota were a hit. When he was next to go, some of his supporters vowed that he’d make the cut down the road.
That left four: Huckabee, Gingrich, Palin, and Bachmann, who then bested Palin because Bachmann was “less polarizing.” But because Bachmann was seen by the group as the least presidential of the remaining three, she was dumped, followed by Huckabee, making Gingrich the surprise winner.
They liked a video of Gingrich effectively blasting the national debt and the radical fixes proposed by Obama’s debt commission, like ending the home mortgage deduction. One panel member says, “We want to see him dismantle Obama in the debates, and he can do it.” Luntz’s own conclusion is, “Principles matter more than pragmatism to these voters, and principles with solid debating skills matter most.”
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.