Penn: culprit or victim?

The Republican in me felt some satisfaction last week when I saw the news scroll across my TV screen: “Pollster Mark Penn leaving Clinton campaign.” But the pollster part of me felt a sense of melancholy. One of “us,” a member of the polling fraternity, didn’t make it. Again.

Personally, I have never had the pleasure of making Penn’s acquaintance. Our clientele have been in different parts of the country, never bringing us into direct campaign competition that I recall. But our careers have spanned a comparable time frame and I have always known of him as one of the leaders in the polling field. So when I began reading accounts of his significant leadership role in formulating strategy for the Clinton campaign, I felt a certain sense of pride that someone hailing from the polling trade was at the pinnacle of a presidential bid.

Based on personal experience, I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t the only pollster who felt this satisfaction. In late 1995, when an Associated Press report went national that I had been named “interim campaign manager” for a nascent Dan Quayle for President campaign, a role that lasted only a few weeks before the candidate withdrew for health reasons, I received genuinely nice congratulatory notes from some otherwise fiercely competitive pollsters saying they were pleased to see “one of us” play such a role, even if only on an interim basis.

Pollsters are the red-haired stepchild of politics when it comes to holding truly significant roles in major presidential campaigns. Sure, there have been some exceptions. Pat Caddell was a major player in one of Jimmy Carter’s presidential bids. Bob Teeter played a top management role in at least one George H.W. Bush campaign, but some would argue that his strategic roll was less influential. Similarly, the actual campaign clout of Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin seems disputed when Reagan insiders tell tales. Dick Morris, of course, played a major role in Bill Clinton’s campaigning, but some would count Dick a strategist first and a pollster second, so I’m not completely certain he figures in this analysis. The number of pollsters who have risen to the undisputed tip of the campaign pyramid is, maybe, zero.

If called upon to explain the paucity of pollsters in prominent presidential campaign roles, some wags might mention the geek factor as limiting the upward mobility of number-busters. Many of our kind, even if not genuine academics, seem a little more like professors than slick ad-men, polished PR plotters or buttoned-down managers. I have been told that it is for this reason that Chris Matthews’s “Hardball” has a policy (or had a policy) of never having pollsters as guests. We’re just not good theater, I suppose, further confirming that the always-theatrical Dick Morris couldn’t possibly be a real pollster.

But I’d prefer to believe that pollsters are overlooked for top campaign positions because it’s their nature and role in campaigns to be candid. Honest assessment doesn’t always help your status in an enterprise staffed mostly by spinners and self-promoters. My first mentor in this business, pollster V. Lance Tarrance, once told me that his greatest satisfaction in politics was being the lone individual in a campaign whose sole responsibility is to tell the truth. He relished the role. But he also knew this responsibility had its consequences. This business has a “shoot the messenger” mentality when it comes to any bad news in a campaign. And few campaigns get by without the pollster delivering some of that bad news.

Mark Penn’s ostensible failure was in his outside associations, but I’d bet that the frequent bad news in Clinton’s world, and Penn’s role in delivering that news, was just as much a factor in his fall.
 
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.