Articles and Analysis


On Filled-in Questionnaires and the Clinton Pollsters

Topics: Filled-In Questionairre , Geoff Garin , Hillary Clinton , Mark Penn

I want to add one thought the chorus of commentary on Josh Green's Atlantic Monthly article on the Hillary Clinton campaign, based on a remarkable collection of email and memoranda he obtained from sources within the campaign. It concerns the first sentence in an April 25 email from newly installed pollster Geoff Garin to the Clinton high command:

Attached is the filled in questionnaire from the North Carolina survey.

Those ten words probably seem utterly mundane to the ordinary reader, even to the ordinary campaign consultant. Pollsters share results with their clients. It's a basic part of the job. Notice also that Garin sent his email at 7:25 a.m. on a Friday morning. The timing and content imply that he was sharing the most critical "top line" results of a tracking survey that had completed the night before.** Thus, this email shows us Garin passing along results as soon as he has them for review by other decision makers. Further analysis and internal discussion no doubt followed.

What makes Garin's ordinary act so remarkable is that Mark Penn, the original Clinton pollster and "chief strategist" rarely delivered a "filled in questionnaires" to the Clinton campaign's senior decision makers. I know this because I heard the story a few months ago from a Clinton staffer with first-hand knowledge of what Penn provided to the campaign (who agreed to share the story on condition of anonymity). My source said that Penn would routinely brief strategy sessions without providing the complete results of the poll in advance. Instead, he would present whatever results best made his case (as exemplified by the the smattering of numbers that appear in the Penn memoranda that accompany Green's article).

Perhaps Hillary and Bill Clinton received the full data, but the senior staff and consultants did not. Amazingly, I am told, Penn also initially refused to share the full cross-tabular reports (the reams of tables like this one showing results to every question by every subgroup of interest), as is also standard practice among campaign pollsters. It was not until relatively late in the campaign at the insistence of then campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle that Penn relented, sharing a hard copy of the cross-tabs on condition that Solis Doyle keep it locked up in a file cabinet in her office.

One can understand the temptation that a "chief strategist" might have to control the flow of data. If you are convinced you have the right strategy, and you make the final decision, why give others a tool to question your judgment?

The problem with that approach should be obvious. It poisons the environment within which functional campaigns privately hash out disagreements and reach consensus about strategy. The pollsters job in this process is to put the data on the table, to provide analysis and guidance about that data, but also to let other senior staffers examine and question it. When the pollster wears two hats -- pollster and "chief strategist" -- greater conflict, questioning of motive and campaign "dysfunction" are inevitable.

**One reason I'm confident that this email followed within hours after completion of calling is that one of the respondents later blogged about his experience (discussed here). The respondent reported having been called a night or two before Garin sent his email.



Having read Josh Green's article, there seems little doubt that the CW placing the blame on Penn is at least widely shared, if not demonstrated beyond a doubt.

What I find interesting about Penn's role is his similarity to his doppelganger, Karl Rove. Each apparently emphasized "microtargeting" as the new strategic religion and each focused on building a winning coalition from a set of potentially disparate constituencies.

Beyond those obvious simiarities, though, is the fact that each strategist focused on developing "minimum winning coalitions" rather than broader strategies. And unfortunately for each of them, the margin between a "minimum winning" and "maximum losing" coalition was very narrow.

Arguably, of course, Rove was the more successful, managing to barely win two presidential elections with an underperforming candidate. Penn, on the other hand, didn't quite make it over the bar with Senator Clinton. (And as with Rove, with a candidate who began with massive structural advantages.)

Rove retained at least some of his reputation as a "genius;" Penn did not. On the other hand, Rove arguably contributed far more to the destruction of his party than Penn. Irony abounds.



What I find most remarkable is how poor management and executive skills produce such poor results. Whether it is Penn or Rove, it is the executive who is in charge of getting the information necessary to make decisions. It is not an excuse to say "I didn't get the information." Or, "I didn't get the right information."

How an executive runs their campaign is how they will run the country.



Execution of strategy is about thorough preparation to drive that performance.

It begins with identifying at the micro, in relative weighting, tailoring the effort to drive out those groups which are for your man, Identifying the other guys strategy, micro support and negating it.

The Rove play book accomplished. With regards the Penn strategy once it was clear that there was not going to be a Super Tuesday knockout, the strategy needed to be changed. In any case.....

My view is that the Clinton campaign threw it away before a single vote was cast, simply by underestimating Obama and not recognizing his strategy or ignoring it.

This remarkable and intersting hubris published by the Atlantic Monthly disclosed by some to save reputations, I guess,is really after the fact. Nevertheless rivetting!



I recall a recent article that said that the Clinton campaign held a post-mortem about their losses on the Super Tuesday primary session. Clinton asked for comments and analysis about what happened and what they thought should occur in terms of revised strategy.

Most of the participants were silent. Clinton complained that she was talking to herself...except foor Penn, who suggested that she "go negative" on Obama's "Americaness".

That's telling! Most of the key staff were not conversant in the polling data and what had occurred. Penn was the one who primarily was massaging it...and dispensing it to the Clintons. Penn is notorious for parsing "associations" that may have little do do with actual voting patterns...and creating demographics like "Soccer Moms". Who knows what sort of correlations he was sending to Hillary and Bill that may have reflected noise.

You generate enough associations with low sample sizes and you are likely to find many that fall into statistically significant values. Do a thousand random associations of a sample of a 100 and about 20 will produce quite strong statistical relationships. Toss those up as "real" and you can convince anyone that doesn't know you've tossed all the other data out.

It's the old selectivity problem in ESP experiments.


richard pollara:

The idea that Mrs. Clinton somehow blew an insurmountable lead is a myth. Her aura of inevitability relied on two things: The ability to raise far more money than her opponents and early 2007 polling that showed her with a huge lead.

Mr. Obama, independent of anything the Clinton's did, raised record amounts of money. Even when polls were showing him trailing by double digit margins he equaled or exceeded the Clinton totals. Was this a Clinton mistake?

The early polling data is more illustrative. In January 2007 Clinton let Obama 41 to 17. By February that lead had narrowed to 36-24. The difference: African American voters. In January 2007 she led Obama amongst AA 60-20. By February 07 she trailed by 44-33. By the time many of the crucial primary votes were cast Obama's percentage of the black vote would be in the 90% range. Interestingly 80% of all AA voters still had a very positive view of Mrs. Clinton even though they we shifting to Obama. Was the loss of the AA vote a strategic blunder by the Clinton's?

Of more importance to the final outcome were things which Clinton had little control. The demographic make-up of the Democratic primary voter, the primary schedule, the decertification of Florida and Michigan and the quirky rules of the Democratic Party which made Idaho as important as Ohio.

This race was a toss up from the very beginning. Looking back on it now you would have to think that the inherent Obama advantages were more important than the Clinton advantages. But both ran a tremendous race. It is a disservice to both Obama and Clinton imply that the screw ups of Mark Penn or Patti Solis Doyle are responsible for his nomination.



@richard pollara I think your analysis is a good detailed summary of the actualities.




Most people agree that Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaing were well-run, disciplined operations.

Do you agree that both Bush administrations have displayed these qualities?


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