In the hands of longtime Clinton strategist Mark Penn, a poll is a deadly weapon. Following the commencement of hostilities between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton over the Illinois senator’s comment that he would enter into talks with rogue foreign leaders, for example, Mr. Penn quickly settled on the explanation that Mr. Obama was desperate.
“Gosh, you would really need to do a lot of groundwork before you would agree to meet with somebody like Ahmadinejad, who has even denied the Holocaust,” Mr. Penn said in a voice so soft that his barb almost seemed sweet.
Mr. Obama’s campaign, he said, had revealed “some level of desperation about not having moved in the polls. And frankly a lot of people have given them the advice ‘oh, just go ahead and get her.’ And so he’ll see whether or not that is more successful than going forward with his policy ideas and the new politics, which is where he started.”
For more than a decade now, Mr. Penn, 53, has functioned as the Clintons’ left hemisphere, drafting and interpreting meticulous and incessant surveys to furnish them, along with his other clients, with the market-tested language and policies to get them into power—and keep them there.
In the words of Doug Schoen, his polling partner for more than 30 years in the firm Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, “Mark is somebody who is very, very comfortable with quantification. He is very comfortable with numbers and very comfortable to be able to see things in black and white.”
One gets the impression, talking to Mr. Penn, that he’d be happy enough dealing with data and nothing else.
“I don’t like campaigns,” said Mr. Penn in a recent interview, slumped back on a white couch in his office, fidgeting with his glasses and keeping his BlackBerry at finger’s length. “No one should like campaigns. I love the work of figuring out what people are thinking. And I love the application of that.”
And yet, since even before the official launch of Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign, Mr. Penn has seemingly been everywhere, running strategy meetings and churning out polls while becoming the cherubic public face of the most intimidating campaign going. He’s a fixture in post-debate spin rooms, mixing it up with his counterparts in Harvard forums and tirelessly making the case for Mrs. Clinton’s electability in newspaper editorials.
The inevitable end-of-summer surge in public attention to the presidential campaign will also coincide neatly with the September release of Mr. Penn’s book, Microtrends, a Tipping Point-style collection of essays about small-but-influential demographic groups he thinks could change society.
MR. PENN, A FIERCE COMPETITOR in everything he does, is now the sole partner in the powerhouse polling firm Penn, Schoen & Berland, after having sold the company to the parent company of international public relations giant Burson-Marsteller.
Mr. Schoen recently left, and Michael Berland, who worked as a pollster for Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, just settled a lawsuit with Mr. Penn after appearing to violate the terms of a no-competition clause he signed when he left the company.
“Mike was very sorry and settled up,” Mr. Penn said. “I had 20 years with him and I think he learned a lesson.”
His former partner had reached out to him, Mr. Penn said, but he had yet to accept the apology. “One step at a time,” he said.
The Washington headquarters of Burson-Marsteller, of which he is now C.E.O., gleams with white walls and aquamarine glass. His corner office is always stocked with Diet Cokes and something called Propel Fitness Water. A desk made from airplane parts sits under a triptych of computer screens while an aquarium populated with blue and yellow fish partitions him from executives hunched over a speakerphone. The walls and bookcases are adorned with more presidential signatures than a peace treaty.
At one point, Mr. Penn proudly pointed out several framed notes of “To Mark Penn, Thanks,” from President Clinton, including one across a Washington Post with the headline, “Clinton Acquitted.”
In an hour-and-a-half conversation, the closest he came to saying anything vaguely reflective or critical about the way Mrs. Clinton’s campaign has gone so far was when he addressed its handling of a spat early this year with Mr. Obama.
Asked about the aggressive public response of Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson to comments from Obama supporter David Geffen, Mr. Penn said, “I don’t think that played out very well.”
“It’s very important in politics not to make the same mistake too many times,” he said. “If we had that one to do over again we would probably approach it differently.”
But when it comes to the sort of issue-by-issue campaign Mrs. Clinton ran to get into the Senate and is now employing in her bid for the White House, Mr. Penn has no regrets.
When Mrs. Clinton first ran for Senate, in 2000, Mr. Penn fought with influential staffers in her campaign who wanted the candidate to define herself by offering a grand vision. Instead, he advocated a more modest approach, in which she would speak out on local issues that his polling indicated were most important to voters. She won, and so did he.
Now that Mrs. Clinton is running for president, there is again disagreement over whether she needs to do more to define herself and what she stands for. Mr. Penn, true to form, argues that Mrs. Clinton is articulating a worldview through her policy positions, and that in fact if any candidate had failed to articulate a vision, it is Barack Obama.
“His best attribute is inspiring, not vision,” said Mr. Penn. “One of the failures is that he hasn’t articulated any real vision.”
Mr. Penn’s vision for the Democratic Party has consistently been one of a determinedly centrist entity—former Democratic consultant Bob Shrum called Mr. Penn “ideologically non-ideological”—that is fiscally conservative and strong on national security. He says that he was a Democratic Leadership Council Democrat even before the group existed, or before he became their resident pollster. And he and Mr. Schoen have for decades railed against Democrats running on “fairness” as a surefire electoral loser.
But as liberal Democratic primary voters, infuriated over President Bush’s policies and the war, have clamored for red meat, Mrs. Clinton’s rhetoric has taken on unmistakably populist notes, especially when she talks about society’s “invisibles.”
“I think that’s what’s right for these times,” Mr. Penn said.
It is also a time in which Democrats are denied much room for nuance on the war in Iraq. Mrs. Clinton, who originally opposed hard deadlines for troop withdrawals and defended the power of the presidential prerogative, has since become vociferously antiwar.
She has not, however, apologized for her 2002 vote to authorize the war, as many in the base of the party would like, and as her opponent John Edwards has.
Mr. Penn, naturally, is confident that this is the right course.
“I’m not sure that I understand the concept that if a candidate gives an apology, he is suddenly not responsible for his vote,” said Mr. Penn. “Edwards was a co–sponsor of the resolution; if you go through Edwards’ speeches he was extremely pro-war. And in many ways, after they hear him apologize, people don’t ask him what he was really thinking and what he was doing. She’s not hiding.”
Mr. Penn bristles at the notion Mrs. Clinton’s incremental movement towards an antiwar position—a movement that tracks closely with public opinion—reflects a close reliance on polls.
“Clearly, polling is a part of the campaign, but it’s not the driving force of the campaign,” he said.
In fact, Mr. Penn firmly believes that polls are a force for good government—he would like to see a “public desk” in the White House—and he rejects assertions from strategists like Mr. Shrum, among others, that candidates who win elections based on small-bore poll-informed tactics lack a true mandate.
“That’s ridiculous,” Mr. Penn said. “Getting elected is a mandate for what you stood for in the campaign.”
MR. PENN, OSTENSIBLY A BACKROOM operative, maintains an unusually high profile in national Democratic professional and social circles. He and his second wife, Nancy Jacobson Penn, a Democratic fund-raiser who used to work for Evan Bayh, throw parties for the city’s elite in a $5 million home in Georgetown, where the couple currently live with their 5-year-old daughter. (Mr. Penn has three other children with his first wife.)
In July, the family celebrated Mr. Schoen’s new memoir, and they have hosted the Clintons and just about every Democratic power player in town.
And Mr. Penn’s elite status is reflected in his elite income: Penn, Schoen & Berland has made about $700,000 from the Clinton campaign in consulting and polling fees so far this year.
His roots are considerably earthier. His father immigrated from Vilna, Lithuania, became an organizer in the city’s poultry union and, eventually, ran a Kosher poultry plant in upstate New York. His parents spoke Yiddish at home.
After his father’s death from cancer in 1964, his mother, Blanche, raised him while substitute-teaching in city elementary schools. As a decidedly unathletic, stamp-collecting 10-year-old, Mr. Penn often ended up grading the papers of her students.
Mr. Penn, along with his two brothers (one became a gastroenterologist in New Jersey, the other now owns a poultry plant outside Atlanta), moved from the Grand Concourse in the Bronx to Riverdale, where he attended the exclusive Horace Mann School. Both brothers, in interviews for this story, credited Mr. Penn with keeping things together for the household and for their grieving mother.
At school, Mr. Penn was president of the Debate Society and editor of the school paper, which he took daily for a week. The first poll he ever conducted, at age 13, was on race relations, he recalled. But the one he got in trouble for was a survey of how many students smoked marijuana.
“The trustees went crazy that I published this in the paper,” he said.
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.”
Mr. Penn, by his own accounting, ended up playing a part in electing 10 foreign heads of state.
However impressive his roster of clients, though, it has been the very breadth of Mr. Penn’s portfolio that has brought him in for criticism from detractors.
Recently, some labor leaders attacked Mr. Penn because one of his corporate clients tried to prevent workers from organizing. (Mr. Penn subsequently gave all oversight responsibilities for his company’s labor relations clients to other executives in the company.)
Dick Morris, who preceded Mr. Penn as Bill Clinton’s pollster before falling out of favor due to a sex scandal before the 1996 reelection, acknowledged Mr. Penn’s skill as a pollster and strategist, and said that he agrees with Mr. Penn’s assertion that Mrs. Clinton will be elected president on the basis of first-time female voters. (Mr. Morris also took credit for bringing Mr. Penn into the White House, a version of events that Mr. Schoen strongly disputes.)
But Mr. Morris thinks that Mr. Penn’s corporate client list—it includes the likes of Microsoft, Texaco and AT&T—is a conflict-of-interest scandal waiting to happen.
“I think he doesn’t know when to stop his commercial life and start his political life,” Mr. Morris said.
He pointed out that Burson-Marsteller promotes itself as the home of Mrs. Clinton’s chief strategist. “He’s letting himself and offering himself to be used by those who want to buy a piece of the incoming Clinton administration,” Mr. Morris said. “It’s a real risk for him.”
(Mr. Penn responds that he is not a lobbyist, and is very careful to keep his political and corporate activities separate.)
IN MICROTRENDS: THE SMALL FORCES Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes, Mr. Penn—the author of the term “soccer moms”—offers more than 400 pages of observational evidence and hard data on groupings with names like “Ardent Amazons,” “Pro Semites” and “Vegan Children.” He even reserves a category for the mature and lusty women known as “Cougars.”
He also baptized “Impressionable Elites,” who he defines as people who make more than $100,000 and who care more about the character traits of candidates and other intangibles than studying their actual positions on the issues. The passage reads like a defense of Mrs. Clinton.
“And the flip side of all this is that the mass of voters have never been truer to the principle (expressed by V.O. Key, that got me into this business in the first place)—that voters are not fools,” Mr. Penn writes. He continues, “So if you can get over all the din created by the chattering elites and the out-of–touch journalists, you can talk to some pretty smart people out there.”
But of course, you need Mark Penn and his polls to find them.