It was at Horace Mann that Mr. Penn first met Mr. Schoen, a short football player with a passion for Democratic politics. Under the tutelage of Dick Morris, then a young Columbia graduate, Mr. Schoen became one of the original “West Side Kids” who helped install a new Democratic machine in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Mr. Penn eventually went to Harvard, but not without running a mini-campaign on his own behalf. Mr. Penn’s brother, Ronald, recalled in an interview with The Observer that after Harvard initially rejected his application, Mr. Penn took a train up to Boston to dispute the matter with the school’s dean, who explained that too many Horace Mann students had already been admitted. Mr. Penn, test scores in hand, argued his case, and a few weeks later received a letter of acceptance.
At Harvard, he again ran into Mr. Schoen, who in 1972 was the day editor of the Harvard Crimson. Mr. Schoen assigned Mr. Penn to cover a co-ed shirts-and-skins football game. Apparently, Mr. Penn handled the situation deftly, and got more work.
Mr. Penn’s real strength turned out to be covering politics and conducting polls for the paper, and he eventually was made city editor. Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, who worked closely with Mr. Penn on The Crimson, said that he had a passion for politics, a talent for crunching statistics and an undeveloped sense of fashion.
“He was, as we say, rumpled, as he still is, with the legendary shirt that can’t stay tucked in,” Mr. Lemann said.
At Harvard, Mr. Schoen took a polling class with Bill Schneider, now the senior political analyst on CNN, and decided to start doing his own polling. He approached Mr. Penn about going into business, and Penn Schoen was established in 1975.
The breakthrough for the young pollsters came when the consultant David Garth hired them to work on Ed Koch’s mayoral campaign in New York. After conducting surveys, the two pollsters would input the data on punch cards for tabulation, an arduous and error-prone process.
“I said, ‘I can buy a computer kit, build it, program it and process this stuff for nothing,’” said Mr. Penn. “And Doug said, ‘Nah, I don’t want a computer. It’s too big an investment.’ So I bought it. It was called the SAL processor technology. I built it and programmed it and we were then able to turn around polls instantly. At that time, just nobody had that capability.”
The leap into overnight polling helped Mr. Garth chart a media strategy that won Koch the election.
“They were the wunderkinds,” said Mr. Koch. Referring to Mr. Penn, the former mayor said, “It was clear he was not going to be a small guy.”
After Harvard, Mr. Penn attended law school at Columbia, where half of his apartment on Claremont Avenue became the Penn Schoen office. The other half belonged to Mr. Penn’s roommate.
“At night we’d have Orthodox Jews come in and input data,” said Schoen. “We had a 24-hour operation.”
As the polling company became more successful, Mr. Penn in 1980 bought a place on East 85th Street—which soon became the site of dinner parties, where he would cook Chinese, Italian and French food for friends, including future Clinton defense lawyer Nicole Seligman. In 1989, he moved to East Chester. In the meantime, his business went international.
Carl Silverberg, who worked with Penn Schoen in 1989 and 1990, recalled seeing Mr. Penn sitting on the floor of a hotel room in Quito like a Buddha, repairing corrupted files on a laptop computer minutes before a presentation to Ecuadorian President Rodrigo Borja Cevallos. Mr. Penn himself recounted a time that then-Prime Minister Tony Blair said he felt as if he were standing in front of a locked door, and that Mr. Penn and his polls were “his key.”