Technology with attitude

Mark Penn’s History, Why He Failed, And What It Means


With the demise of Mark Penn as a daily figure in this campaign, I wanted to take a retrospective look back. Not just to the beginning of the campaign, but to the beginning of Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992. It makes the events of the past 3 or 4 days that much more astounding.

I. The Perot Campaign

Like all sweeping epics, this story begins in much the same place that it ends. In this case, it is with Penn making a lot of money and a Clinton presidential campaign have monetary problems. Of course, in this case, Penn did a month’s worth of work for the Ross Perot campaign in 1992, while Bill Clinton was the candidate in debt. Penn was with Perot from the very beginning. In fact, he received almost half of the first disbursements of the Perot campaign. (Washington Post, 4/21/92). On the same day, in fact, it was revealed one Bill Clinton was 2 million dollars in debt after the Illinois and Michigan primaries, ironically. (LA Times, 4/21/92). What did Perot pay for? Perot’s own words show little confidence in Penn: “”Friends of mine… just couldn’t breathe without one, so I said get one. Spent 10 minutes looking at his results. Everybody says I paid him too much for it.” (The Hotline, 5/5/92).

After that poll, though, Penn stopped working for the campaign, apparently as even Perot found Penn too expensive, combined with Frank Luntz growing closer to Perot. (Washington Post 5/5/92). That didn’t stop Penn from doing what he is now incomparably famous for: spin that is completely unbelieveable to anyone who has taken a long term view to anything. In early June 1992, after he had stopped working for Perot, Penn said, “It certainly is too early, but the fact that the public has not solidified is a very positive factor for Perot, indicating the possibility that he can overcome the pattern of third-party trailoffs and sustain support to November.”

This culminated in what now seems like an absurd remix of the present election. From the July 12, 1992 edition of This Week with David Brinkley:

SMITH: [voice-over] If Bentsen’s right, that means a much nastier fall campaign, so it was perhaps no accident that, a week after the worst unemployment figures in eight years, Vice President Quayle was out testing what sounded very much like a personal attack on Governor Clinton.

J. DANFORTH QUAYLE, U.S. Vice President: One reason George Bush will win this election is that the American people know his character. He is honest, not slick.

SMITH: [voice-over] “Slick Willie”- remember him, the candidate who didn’t inhale marijuana and who didn’t sleep with Gennifer Flowers?

Gov. CLINTON: [February 1992] Your nation is losing its economic edge.

SMITH: [voice-over] Voters liked Clinton’s message of change, but were put off by questions about his character.

MARK PENN, Pollster: Can you trust him? Is he really sincere and believable? I think that it’s the women in America who have more doubt about him than anyone else and they’re the ones that have to be convinced over the next week that he’s a sincere candidate who’s going to help them.

Moreover, the following quote from the July 26, 1992 Washington Post might describe why he ultimately resigned now. (And the harm of him now resigning earlier):

Despite a year of image rehab, Quayle still is a sure laugh on late-night television. “He’s seen as a fool,” said Mark Penn, a political consultant and pollster who worked with independent Ross Perot earlier in the year. “Is this race such that Bush can win with a [perceived] fool on the ticket? No. He needs a partner who is a lift among swing voters, instead of a partner who’s really a drag on his efforts.”

II. The Distant Past – Anderson et. al.

Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas. Hillary Clinton was working for a top Arkansas law firm. John McCain was serving in the Senate and trying to live down the Keating Five. Barack Obama was entering Harvard Law School. Where was Mark Penn? Taking questions live on C-Span before the New York Primary. (Syracuse Post-Standard 4/17/88). Ok, seriously, he was already a Democratic pollster, but it certainly underlines where he comes from.

Mark Penn has been attacked for being both a pollster and a strategist. A look at Penn’s career through this regard shows something deeper. Penn’s career can be said to more or less begin with John Anderson’s campaign in 1980.

A National Journal article in 1980 looks very interesting in retrospect (National Journal, 10/18/80):

You wouldn’t know it from watching them in action today, but until recently political pollsters lacked both celebrity and clout.

It was only a few years ago that pollsters in politics were likened to accountants: behind-the-scenes technicians needed to keep a campaign running but seldom in on strategic decisions. Or they were dismissed as social scientists who played with computers to prove self-evident theorems.

Pollsters were considered useful to buttress political instincts and personal contacts in the heat of a campaign. But it was the polls, not the pollsters, who ran the show.

In the 1980 presidential campaign, however, that’s changed. The pollsters are directing — some would say dominating — the campaign and are intimately involved in campaign tactics and strategies.

In-house polling helped, for example, to dictate the style and content of Republican Ronald Reagan’s statements in his Sept. 21 televised debate with independent John B. Anderson. On the Democratic side, polling data suggested that Reagan would be vulnerable to hardhitting attacks on his public positions by President Carter and Administration officials.

Which one set of pollsters did not have that type of authority?

In Anderson’s independent presidential campaign, by contrast, pollsters Mark Penn and Douglas E. Schoen are not at the center of operations. That place is filled by media adviser and campaign director David Garth, an acknowledged master at using polls to shape candidates’ media images. (See NJ, 9/3/80, p. 1523. )

“He asks for specific things,” said Penn. “We work with Garth closely and he integrates the data into the campaign… A part of his success as a political consultant is his success at turning polls into strategies

There are a couple of unflattering ways to look at this. One could look at the rest of Penn’s career in a vein similar to Captain Ahab. While both were ostensibly successful – captain of a ship, leader of Penn,Schoen and Berland and Burson-Marstellar, Penn was Ahab-like in his desire to both be a pollster and a “Chief Strategist.”
Mark Penn Was There
Moreover, one could also argue that Bill and Hillary Clinton (and others) trusted Penn with political advice, even though even John Anderson was smart enough not to.

A brief 1987 Advertising Age profile meant to indicate how revolutionary Penn was now reads more along the lines of how dated he may be (Advertising Age, 11/2/87).:

Mark Penn and Doug Schoen … had an innovative idea which “at the time we had trouble convincing people to try” — polling by telephone. That method is now the norm. In addition to being one of the country’s top Democratic political pollsters, Penn + Schoen also does an increasing amount of market research for corporations, corporate image work, survey research for government agencies, single-issue research for associations and public interest groups, legal research and international political polling and survey research.

“We’ve used the techniques of political polling in foreign presidential campaigns in places such as Venezuela and Israel,” says Mr. Penn.

What once was innovative now sounds like bragging for designing the piano necktie.

III. Rise With the DLC

In order to understand the fall of Penn, one has to understand his rise as well.