The Gurus | Mark Penn
Monday, April 30, 2007
It was fairly simple, Mark J. Penn said calmly to Vice President Al Gore, reporting the findings of an exhaustive survey he had conducted in the early stages of the 2000 presidential campaign. Voters liked Gore's policies. They just didn't like Gore.
Gore laughed, according to people who attended the meeting. He had heard that before. But the vice president, worried about the effect President Bill Clinton's scandals might have on his campaign, had another question for his pollster: Was there any evidence of this "Clinton fatigue" that people kept talking about?
"I'm not tired of him," Penn replied. "Are you?"
It was a flippant response -- and the final straw for Gore, who had long been wary of Penn and concerned that his real loyalty was to Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. His senior advisers agreed, regarding Penn as arrogant and controlling, someone who pushed the boundaries of his job by dispensing strategic advice rather than simply interpreting data. Shortly after the meeting with Gore, Penn was fired. One of the party's most prominent pollsters sat out the presidential campaign, but he signed up that year with a familiar face making her inaugural run for office in Penn's native New York -- Hillary Clinton.
Eight years later, it is Clinton who is running for president, and Penn, 53, is her chief strategist. While not her campaign manager in name, Penn controls the main elements of her campaign, most important her attempt to define herself to an electorate seemingly ready for a Democratic president but possibly still suffering from Clinton fatigue.
In the four months since Clinton officially became a candidate, Penn has consolidated his power, according to advisers close to the campaign, taking increasing control of the operation. Armed with voluminous data that he collects through his private polling firm, Penn has become involved in virtually every move Clinton makes, with the result that the campaign reflects the chief strategist as much as the candidate.
If Clinton seems cautious, it may be because Penn has made caution a science, repeatedly testing issues to determine which ones are safe and widely agreed upon (he was part of the team that encouraged Clinton's husband to run on the issue of school uniforms in 1996).
If Clinton sounds middle-of-the-road, it may be because Penn is a longtime pollster for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council whose clients have included Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.).
If Clinton resembles a Washington insider with close ties to the party's biggest donors, it may be because her lead strategist is a wealthy chief executive who heads a giant public relations firm, where he personally hones Microsoft's image in Washington.
And if some opponents see Clinton as arrogant, her campaign a coronation rather than a grass-roots movement, it may be because of the numbers wizard guiding her campaign and the PowerPoint presentations he likes to give on the inevitability of his candidate.
Yet Penn also has everything that Clinton would want in a senior consultant: undisputed brilliance and experience, according to even his enemies; clear opinions, with data to back them up; unwavering loyalty; and a relentless focus on the endgame: winning the general election. And Clinton clearly adores him. She describes Penn in her autobiography, "Living History," as brilliant, intense, shrewd and insightful.
"Mark brings a certain certainty about his point of view that can feel like an anchor in stormy seas," said Geoffrey D. Garin, a Democratic pollster who is not connected to any campaign. "It's clear -- and more importantly, it's clear to Senator Clinton -- that he has a consuming commitment to her, and that's not been true in all of the previous Clinton consulting relationships."