Mark Blumenthal | September 14, 2007
Ezra Klein really hates the new book by Clinton pollster Mark Penn:
[Penn's] new book Microtrends is so bad that the question--in a fair world--isn't whether it will destroy his own reputation, but whether it is so epically awful as to take the entire polling industry down with it.
That certainly grabbed my attention. Klein expands on that idea in his last few paragraphs:
Pollsters occupy a uniquely powerful space in American political discourse: They bring science to elections. Armed with heaps of raw data, they elevate their opinions into something altogether weightier: Conclusions. When an organization sends out a press release saying the organization is right, it's ignored. When a pollster sends out a poll showing the electorate agrees, ears in Washington perk up.
The enterprise has always been dodgy. Populist pollsters reliably discover that the electorate thirsts for more populism. Conservative pollsters routinely discover a small government consensus pulsing at the heart of the body politic. When the libertarian Cato Institute commissioned a poll of the electorate, they found--shockingly--that the essential swing vote was made of libertarians. Remarkably, whenever a politician or self-interested institution releases a poll, the results show a symmetry between the attitudes of the pollster's employer and those of the voters. But Penn's book shines light on this phenomenon: If he is the pinnacle of his profession, then the profession uses numbers as a ruse--a superficial empiricism that obscures garden-variety hackery. And that's a trend worth worrying about.
I have not yet read Penn's book, and like Klein, have never met him. But my own sense is that Penn is an unusual case as political pollsters go, both in terms of his paycheck and methods (for example, as Klein notes, "unlike most pollsters, Penn never releases his raw numbers, only his analysis").
But set Penn aside for a moment. Klein raises a fair point about the many publicly released surveys sponsored by partisans and interest groups. Consumers should always approach such data with skepticism because -- surprise, surprise -- interest groups and their pollsters tend to cherry pick results that make the most compelling case for their side. Educated consumers confronted with such releases should always wonder, "what results am I not seeing?"
Still, I think Klein goes a bit too far here. His conditional rhetoric -- "If [Penn] is the pinnacle of his profession, then the profession uses numbers as a ruse" -- strikes me as the same sort of speculative leap (based on a sample size of n=1) that Klein finds so troubling in Penn's book.
I am a pollster, of course, so some bias on this issue is inevitable. Readers, what do you think? Is Klein's criticism (of Penn and pollsters generally) fair? Is Penn "the pinnacle" of the polling profession?
Update - Mark Penn emails:
Given all the reviews of Microtrends I am rather surprised the only one you mention is Ezra Klein.
Would appreciate your mentioning or linking to some of the reviews in USA Today, Business Week, Economist, Bloomberg, Politco, Newsweek among others that had a very different and very high opinion of the book.
It is unfortunate but not surprising that an American Prospect writer put out a review like this given their past articles. Of course that would be a correlation, not necessarily causation. Or is it?
It is not at all a political book and I hope you will read it and enjoy it.
Fair enough. I added the links above. For what it's worth, I did link to the Politico review a week ago.