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A local pollster looks ahead to election season


If there is a method to the madness of politics, local Democratic pollster Jim Kitchens knows it. Having assisted Orange County commissioner Bill Segal, Orlando commissioner Phil Diamond and state Rep. Scott Randolph, among numerous national congressional clients, to win, Kitchens – via his Maitland firm, the Kitchen Group – has the ebb and flow of political favor down to a science.

Graphing consumerism, fear, narcissism and religiosity, with communication, values and perception on the connecting matrix (the “Kitchens Method”), Kitchens helps candidates and causes speak language people respond to.

He calls himself a “campaign map maker,” one who knows a lot about campaigning, but nothing about politics. And he wears an earring. Who is Jim Kitchens, and what can he tell us about the upcoming political season?

Why does it seem like you have to be in possession of the “asshole factor” in order to run for office these days?

You’ve hit on something. I’ve been doing this professionally for 30 years and I try not to think of myself as feeling like an old man who complains that the whole world is going to hell, you know, “The kids are ruining the world.” I try not to sound like that, but finding good quality people to run for office has been harder in the last few years, because everything is available about your life; that’s one of the reasons. And there was a time 20 years ago even where certain things were considered out of bounds. The press didn’t deal with, for example, if your kid was in trouble. They didn’t really consider that an issue, they didn’t expose him. There was a boundary between private life and public life, and that line has been tremendously blurred in the last 15 or 20 years.

You’ve been called the anti–Karl Rove. Speaking of him, what do you think the Republicans have been able to do that Democrats have fallen short on in the past?

Well, I think it’s been kind of history. In 1964, Goldwater got absolutely killed running on a traditionally Republican message of pro–big business. They felt that the Kennedy-Johnson first administration was too big-government, too much taxes, when actually people liked it, people liked what was happening. In ’64, the Republicans started saying, “Wait a minute, we got killed. How do we sell a conservative message?” And they went into what I call the think-tank mode – they created all of these think tanks and groups – and they worked and worked very hard on political persuasion: how to frame messages, how to call things.

Let me give you an example: They are now talking about how workers either have to be on the “government welfare state” or the “corporate welfare state.” Well, the “corporate welfare state,” what they’re talking about is company pensions. I don’t know how you define that as welfare when most people paid into a pension plan assuming it would be there when they got there, and it was part of their compensation package. But now they’re starting to call it “corporate welfare” and [implying] companies have no obligation to take care of their workers’ retirement.

Isn’t “welfare” just a nasty word?

Yeah, it implies in people’s minds that you get something for nothing. The “death tax” is another one. The estate tax has now been labeled the “death tax.” They’re very good at persuasion.

What they didn’t figure out is how you run a country, how you run policy. They didn’t get real control of the government between 1932 and 2000. It was 2000 when they really got control of the government, where it was, “OK, you have the White House and both houses of Congress, and it’s your responsibility to run this country now.” Because between 1932 and 2000, the Democrats controlled one or two houses of Congress or the White House, sometimes all three.

So, we developed in the other direction as a party of policy. Our guys studied issues and policy and how you make stuff work and how you make government run. And we kind of gave up on political persuasion, thinking, “All we have to do is give people the facts, and we know how to run government,” and that’s not the way it works.

So, the Karl Roves of the world sit around thinking about how to frame stuff. Now the problem Republicans have found after being in control: Sometimes in politics, reality drops in on you. They can talk all they want about success in Iraq, but as people in this country sit and watch what’s happening on the nightly news, they’re not buying it.

The messages inherent in “religion” and “values” seem to be on their side, though.

I can’t remember who said the quote, “When you’re trying to start a movement, having God on your side is a good thing.” They have hijacked Jesus, there’s no doubt about it.

I find it very interesting – you may have seen it – the front page in the Sentinel about Joel Hunter. You know, he was head of the Christian Coalition, didn’t last about a month. I said it when he got it. He wants to talk about stuff like poverty and pollution, and they were saying, “No, no, the only thing we care about is sex issues.” They call them the below-the-belt issues: abortion and gay rights and stuff like that. And the reason why is that those things excite people and move people and keep them on their side. They have really cultivated that into a movement. Mainline churches and things like the [National] Council of Churches are not used to fighting in politics like the right wing was. They’ve basically manipulated and used them. They took a bunch of television preachers and made them superstars.

Is there a standard set of considerations you apply whenever you take on a new cause or a new candidate?

One of the things about candidates, I’m usually the first guy that’s discouraging someone from running. I’ve made a lot of friends over the years by telling them, “Don’t go do this; you’ll get beat.” One of the things is, while you may feel that the incumbent is horrible and you have a great cause, when you look at it – if it’s a Democrat-versus-Republican race – because of redistricting, districts are very hard to swing from one party to the other. I tell people back in the ’80s when I first started, redistricting was done with precinct maps and magic markers. Now they have GPS down to the household as to who they want in and who they want out.

When polling on an issue like abortion – pro-life or pro-choice issues – what kind of questions do you ask?

We look at those issues all the time, because they’re political issues we have to deal with. That is another good example of how the language is used. “Partial-birth abortion”: There is no such thing. That’s a made-up term. It sounds like you’re killing your child. The doctors involved in this say this just doesn’t happen, unless there’s a medical emergency and you have to do something. And in this case, what they’ve now said – and what the Supreme Court has now held up, which I don’t think women technically understand – if there’s a choice between a woman who’s eight months pregnant, if she’s going to die or the child, they’re going to have to try to save the child. That’s what this law really means.

Do you think that the Democrats are a shoo-in in 2008?

No. Not at all.

Why not?

If I were them, I would be most concerned about having a party with no simple national message. What are they the party of? Even though the performance may not fit the message, the Republicans stand up and say, “We’re the party of less government, less taxes and traditional family values.” That’s the way they’ve branded themselves. The problem they’ve got is that the reality of policy is not matching up to who they say they are. We haven’t figured out on a national basis how to say, “We’re the party of fairness, opportunity and responsibility.”

John Edwards opens up his health-care speech with a wonderful line: To believe in health-care programs, you have to believe every American is worth as much as every other American. That’s a good value statement, that we are equal and that we’re all in this together. And that’s a good way to begin, with a good value point.

I mean the Democrats should be a shoo-in, because this has been such a disastrous administration. But if you look at it heads on heads right now, it’s a margin-of-error race between anybody. So we’re a long way away. A year and a half in politics is a lifetime. God knows what could happen. If there’s another Sept. 11 attack, maybe they get us out of Iraq, maybe we nuke Iran. God knows what this crowd’s going to do.
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