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On Pollsters and Conflicts

Topics: 2008 , Pollsters , The 2008 Race

Ann Kornblut's 2,800 word, front-page must-read profile in yesterday's Washington Post of Clinton pollster and "chief strategist" Mark Penn has been stirring up quite a bit of critical commentary on the left side of the blogosphere. Although Media Matters takes the piece to task for speculating without "any evidence" that "American voters ‘suffer[] from Clinton fatigue,'" most are critical of Penn. Greg Sargent questions what Kornblut described as Penn's "deep roots in the national security wing of the Democratic party." Both Mark Schmitt and Matthew Iglesias take exception to what Kornblut described as Penn's "undisputed brilliance" as a Pollster.

Others focus on Penn's corporate conflicts. "In the 1980s," Matt Stoller writes, "[C]entrists like Penn . . . were often on retainer to tobacco, telecom and pharma because it was good business to have influential consultants on their payroll." Similarly, David Sirota asks, "could Mark Penn and the Clinton team be any more of a walking advertisement for corruption, insiderism and limousine liberalism?"

Here are the two key paragraphs on that subject from Kornblut's article:

The job [worldwide chief executive of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller] is the latest iteration of the lucrative corporate work that Penn and Schoen began in the 1980s, at the same time they were making their names as political pollsters, and that put them in the company of a new generation of business-minded Democratic consultants.

Among their clients over the years were ATT, Eli Lilly, Texaco and Microsoft. Their specialty was corporate research and positioning -- figuring out, for example, how AT&T could outflank competitor MCI by targeting uncommitted customers, the business equivalent of seeking out swing voters. While some Democratic rivals criticized the crossover work, suggesting that Penn had sold out or worse, the polling firm expanded rapidly, with Penn and Schoen adapting corporate models to the political sphere and vice versa.

I have two thoughts to add, although readers should remember that that until last fall, I worked for 20 years as a Democratic campaign pollster and thus technically qualified as a "Democratic rival" (although in terms of clients, I was certainly not in Penn's league).

First, yes, as Mark Schmitt writes, "life is full of conflicts." Penn and Schoen are certainly not the first Democratic consultants to take on corporate clients, nor will they be the last. And yes, as Schmitt puts it, "everyone in Washington has at least two jobs," or at least it sometimes seems that way. However, Penn and Schoen have displayed a thirst for corporate work, often in conflict with the policy agendas of their political clients, that has long set the bar among Democratic pollsters. My employers and partners over the years had corporate lines they (variously) refused to cross -- tobacco, pharma, big oil, aggressively anti-union -- both out of ideological principle and to avoid putting their valued political clients in a tough spot. A quick glance at the Penn, Schoen, Berland client list shows they not only crossed some of those lines, but did so with enthusiasm.

One personal irony is that while I have never met Mark Penn, my one or two encounters with his former partner Doug Schoen were the result of a mutual corporate client, America Online, Inc. For eight years, I conducted customer satisfaction surveys for AOL -- something that provided a big chunk of my annual income -- while Schoen did research focused more on AOL's advertising and corporate image. I was fortunate that my work for AOL never posed a direct conflict with my political clients, at least, none that I was aware of. But it certainly could have. Consider a hypothetical example: What if I had been polling for an Attorney General who had filed a lawsuit against the company and wanted to highlight that action as a message in a campaign? It would be absurd to argue that my advice to that candidate would be unaffected, even subconsciously, by my regular stream of income from the corporate client.

These sorts of ethical questions are difficult, and I assume that my colleagues in the consulting world find the harsh criticism from the "Netroots" highly annoying. But these are important issues, and the bloggers are right to ask tough questions. Many campaign pollsters chose to avoid lucrative corporate projects to avoid creating conflicts for their valued political clients. As such, it seems entirely fair to hold candidates accountable for the apparent conflicts of interest of their influential consultants.

 

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