Ex Orienti Lux

Time For Mark Penn To Go

Originally posted to The Moderate Voice - I'll be guest writing there on polling and polls for a while.

I’m a little late to the fight between Democratic pollsters Stan Greenberg and Mark Penn, but I thought it important to finish reading Greenberg’s book before I offered an opinion.

To those of us who work in polling, data or analytics, the revelations in Greenberg’s book provide few new revelations but replete examples of how far out of the mainstream of best practices and ethics Mark Penn’s work really is. This is also a perfect illustration of the problematic culture of Democratic consultants and their deleterious effects on Democratic campaigns.

But first, a little context.

Stan Greenberg is best known as the political scientist who first described and predicted the party switch of working class whites from Democrats to Republicans, and the pollster who guided Bill Clinton to a narrow plurality victory in 1992. Since then, he has founded the Democratic polling behemoth, Greenberg Quinland Rosner Research. Several of his employees have gone on to become prestigious Democratic pollsters in their own right, such as Diane Feldman and Celinda Lake. (Full Disclosure: I have worked for both.) Furthermore, Greenberg is generally considered a strong contributor to the Democratic analytics community through programs like Democracy Corps.

Mark Penn is best known as the former CEO of Burson-Marsteller, and the head of their political division, Penn Schoen Berland and Associates. His most prominent political work was as pollster and chief strategist for the 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign and a short stint as a pollster for Gore/Lieberman 2000. Prior to that, he was one of the pollsters, working with Dick Morris, who helped Bill Clinton in 1996, focusing on voter “segmentation” and devising policies that would appeal to those segments. Aside from his work for the Clintons, he mostly did (and has returned to) commercial work.

During the 2008 Democratic primary, Penn became a household name among political junkies and other high-information voters for the depth and breadth of his controversial statements and behaviours. In a widely disseminated piece in The Atlantic, it was reported that Penn would withhold data from key players in the campaign and insist that they just trust him, as well as advising a morally reprehensible strategy of racial division against Senator Obama. He also attempted to sideline anyone who disagreed with his methods and conclusions, and frequently overstepped his portfolio in an attempt to take undue credit for campaign victories. He is, to say the least, a highly polarising figure.

In his book, Greenberg describes a prior instance of Penn withholding data — Blair’s reelection campaign in Britain — and then goes further to describe how many believe Penn falsifies data to back up his own preferred readings. In other words, if the data don’t say what Penn wants them to say, he simply makes enough changes to get the outcomes he wants. Less politely, he lies to his clients and jeopardises their chances for success. Penn’s response was that Greenberg was out of the loop on Blair’s campaign, and so he would have had no way of knowing whether or not Penn was withholding data.

In turn, Penn’s defenders point out that, while he didn’t provide the actual data products (such as completed questionnaires, daily partial reports, and a full cross-tabular analysis of each poll as it was completed), he did provide written reports and analyses of what he’d derived from these polls, and that this contribution was useful. That defense seems reasonable until you consider it is a fundamental tenet of public opinion research that the clients own the data.

The job of the pollster is to collect the data, create legible products from them, provide reports on the meaning of the data and then house them for the client in a secure database — but ultimately, the data belong to the client. It is absolutely unconscionable for a pollster to refuse to provide data products upon completion, alongside his analyses of them. To further refuse to provide data products upon explicit request from the client, as Penn did in the Blair, Gore, and Clinton campaigns, moves beyond eccentricity or bad habit into the realm of malpractice and malfeasance.

In conversations, Penn’s defenders point out that Greenberg comes from academia, with its conventions on long-term research, validation and fact-checking, which is why Greenberg is so insistent on rigourously produced data products that are given to the client. In contrast, Penn , comes from the commercial world, which moves at breakneck speed, and often doesn’t have the time to create all the data products that an academic like Greenberg would deliver. That defense is both false and irrelevant.

It is false because Penn would have required those very products in order to produce the reports and briefings he delivered to his clients, and also because the world of commercial opinion research, especially at the higher dollar levels, is far more rigourous than the world of political research. In other words, if it’s true that Penn’s methodology is shaped by his time in the commercial world, then he should be inundating the client with data products and raw data.

Even if we grant Penn’s defenders their assumptions about the nature of commercial public opinion research, that defense is irrelevant because Penn chose to work in the political sphere, where Greenberg’s methods are the norm. Accordingly, the arguments of Penn’s supporters make about as much sense as saying that it would be okay for him to travel to the United Kingdom and drive on the right side of the road because he was raised in America.

Such conflicts might seem trivial to people outside the analytics community. Outsiders may wonder what such conflicts between rival consultants have to do with their daily lives and whether or not this is just another inside-the-Beltway tempest in a teapot. While understandable, such views miss the larger point: the money that we give candidates and parties we support might be wasted and spent badly, which means that our preferred outcome, the victory of our candidates, is jeopardised. The import of such waste is heightened when one considers the fact that many campaigns receive matching funds from government and hence tax dollars could go to malefactors.

I wish it were possible to say Penn is an isolated case, a single bad apple, in the field of Democratic consultants, but he’s not. While I have no direct knowledge of other Democratic pollsters behaving like Penn apparently did, Amy Sullivan’s 2005 article for The Washington Monthly argues that Democratic consultants have frequently abused the trust of their clients. In her article, Sullivan describes how personal loyalty, a cliquish mentality, and perverse structural incentives combined to have the same unsuccessful consultants get re-hired, move upward, and be able to charge more for worthless services, after every careless loss.

The fact that people like Penn continued to be hired is part of what led to low confidence in Democrats for so long. After all, if we couldn’t trust candidates to staff a campaign with competent people, how could we trust them to staff government? Things have changed since Sullivan’s essay: The 2006 midterms saw a lot of these people run out out of the consulting world, leaving the bona fide consultants in place and bringing in a world of new people and techniques. The 2008 campaigns continued that trend, and Penn is now a dinosaur trying to defend his record.

Polling provides a valuable service to candidates and elected officials. Without polling, the concerns of people who don’t have the time to visit or call the candidate’s office would go unheard. A poll is a way for a candidate to reach people he would otherwise never have a chance to talk to and hear what they think is important. If a candidate doesn’t make his campaign about helping the people he wants to serve, he doesn’t deserve to win. Unfortunately, people like Mark Penn might very well be turning this valuable service into something nefarious, with claims of secret data validating their strategies. The purging of such malefactors should continue.