By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
On no stormy sea has Penn been more of an anchor for Clinton than on Iraq, so far the defining issue of the 2008 election. "I don't think there's any gap in their thinking," said Douglas Schoen, Penn's former business partner.
As her position has evolved, from initial support for President Bush to fierce criticism of the war's management, Clinton has sought a careful balance, one that maintains her image of strength on national security while not antagonizing the staunchly antiwar elements of her party. Asked repeatedly by antiwar Democrats to apologize for her original support for the war, Clinton has refused. Penn has been among her strongest backers on that score, according to Clinton's advisers, agreeing that to apologize would be disastrous both politically and on the merits.
It was Penn, famously rumpled and awkward in public, who picked a fight at a Harvard forum this year when he disrupted a mild exchange between consultants to accuse Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) of equivocating on Iraq. Penn's outburst seemed designed to reach antiwar Democrats by shifting attention away from Clinton's initial support for the war by arguing that she and her main rival have similar approaches to ending it.
"When they got to the Senate, Senator Obama's votes were exactly the same" as Clinton's, Penn told the panel. "So let's not try to create false differences when we both agree it's time to de-escalate, when we both agree it's time to end this war, and let's be clear that Senator Clinton thinks that, Senator Obama thinks that."
His remarks enraged David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser, who called the characterization dishonest.
Penn plays down his role in advising Clinton on Iraq. "I'm definitely not a national security adviser," he said in an interview in his office. "I think I understand the issue. But I leave that to the policy advisers who are very close to her."To Penn, 'Strength Is Critical'
In their $5 million Georgetown mansion, Penn and his wife, Nancy Jacobson, a former staff member for Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) who is now a fundraiser with the Clinton campaign, run something of a salon for like-minded friends. They recently threw a book party for Jeffrey Goldberg, the New Yorker writer, to celebrate the release of his memoir on Israel. On another occasion, they hosted David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, for a dinner party and political discussion.
Penn has deep roots in the national security wing of the Democratic Party, along with other centrist Democrats -- some of them Jewish and pro-Israel, like Penn -- who saw the merits of invading Iraq before the war began.
"Penn has always believed that strength is critical for running the country, and that people want to have a president who's going to be willing to defend the country -- that's the number one criteria," said Al From, the chief executive of the Democratic Leadership Council, who considers Penn a friend.
Penn gained his foreign policy expertise working on numerous campaigns overseas, especially in Israel. In 1981, he and business partner Doug Schoen helped reelect Menachem Begin, one of the most right-wing prime ministers in the country's history, and emerged with a new outlook on the Middle East. "We got a chance to experience firsthand the perils and possibilities that the state of Israel presents," Schoen said in an interview.
In a pivotal moment, the pollsters watched as Begin launched airstrikes against a developing Iraqi nuclear facility, Osirak, in the middle of the campaign. "In the end, bombing the Osirak reactor became a metaphor for the type of man that Begin was and the steps he was willing to take to safeguard Israel's security," Schoen wrote in his autobiography, "The Power of the Vote."
Ever since, Penn has been a prominent advocate of conveying strength in foreign policy. As recently as the 2004 presidential contest, Penn argued that Democrats would lose if they failed to close the "security gap." His client list includes prominent backers of the Iraq war, particularly Lieberman, whose presidential campaign Penn helped run in 2004, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose campaign he advised when Blair won a historic third term in 2005.
Penn sounds a defensive note about his work for Lieberman, insisting that the senator, who all but broke with his party last year over the war in Iraq, bears no relation to his current client. "The war went south, and Lieberman went very north on the war," Penn said in a recent interview in his office. He quickly added: "There's zero comparison between where Senator Lieberman is on the war and Senator Clinton."
Penn started his polling business with Schoen with the 1977 New York mayoral candidacy of Edward I. Koch, and he got to the White House through another New York pollster, Dick Morris, who had worked for moderate Democrats such as Bill Clinton as well as for many Republicans. Morris was hired by the Clintons to provide strategic advice after the 1994 elections, when it became clear that the Republican takeover of Congress required a fundamental shift in White House political strategy if Clinton were to be reelected in 1996.
Morris, whose innovative, granular style of polling made him a favorite of Hillary Clinton's, hired Penn and Schoen at the beginning of 1995, as the president geared up for his campaign. Penn, quick-witted and bursting with data at every meeting, grew close to Bill Clinton as the campaign evolved. When Morris was forced to resign after a prostitute revealed her relationship with him during the Democratic convention, Penn filled his role.
He stayed on in the second term, polling for Clinton and the Democratic National Committee throughout the president's impeachment scandal. By the 2000 campaign, Penn's relationship with both Clintons was cemented.
Like Morris -- and his current client -- Penn likes to swim in as much hard information as possible. Some critics say he is prone to skewing his interpretations to portray clients, and specifically the Clintons, in the best light, but Penn's work is reliable enough that his business has exploded over the decades.A Business-Minded Approach
Today, from a sleek 12th-floor office just off Thomas Circle, Penn manages both the strategy of the Democratic presidential front-runner and a multimillion-dollar corporation as worldwide chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, a 2,000-employee public relations firm. The job 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 AT&T, 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.
A year and a half ago, Penn was named CEO of Burson-Marsteller, succeeding Thomas Nides, another Democratic campaign operative. Although he is Clinton's chief strategist, he is not technically on the campaign staff. Instead, the Clinton campaign employs his polling firm, Penn Schoen & Berland Associates, a 175-employee unit within Burson-Marsteller. Penn's firm is on a retainer of $15,000 to $20,000 per month, with specific services, such as polls or direct mailings, available a la carte.
According to recent Federal Election Commission filings, the Clinton campaign owes Penn Schoen & Berland $277,146.96 for consulting and polling in the first quarter of 2007. Penn's wife's firm, Nancy Jacobson Consulting Inc., was paid $10,000 in the first quarter and is owed an additional $19,354.84. Penn said that he receives no compensation directly from the Clinton campaign and that his salary from Burson-Marsteller, which he declined to reveal, is contingent upon his management performance for the corporation overall, rather on than specific fees from the campaign.
Penn said that he has been cleared of all client responsibilities, except for Microsoft, for the duration of the campaign but that he still relies on a team of about 20 employees to do most of the day-to-day work. Though running a major company and a presidential campaign at the same time would seem to provide a number of possible conflicts, Penn insists there are none.
"I do communications, and it's up to the clients what positions they take on things," he said. "I'm not doing any lobbying. I'm not trying to win a particular piece of legislation or anything. I'm trying to help people sharpen their message."
Nonetheless, it is an unusual arrangement. In the 2000 race, then-Gov. George W. Bush forced his top strategist, Karl Rove, to sell his direct-mail business to eliminate the perception of any conflicts of interest and to guarantee that his full attention would be on the campaign. While other consultants also do lucrative corporate work, no one holds as senior a corporate position as Penn's while effectively running a presidential campaign. (Although Patti Solis Doyle is Clinton's official campaign manager, she has never worked on a presidential campaign, other than working for Clinton when her husband was running.)
Interviews with numerous associates of Penn's indicated that he spends most of his time working on the Clinton candidacy, from his daily 7:30 a.m. strategy call with senior campaign aides until after 2 a.m., when he is often still sending out political e-mails. Some rivals and colleagues suspect he is polling for Clinton on a nightly basis, which Penn says is not true.The 'Penn PowerPoint'
They called it the "Penn PowerPoint," the distillation of Penn's thinking about how Clinton can become president, and at small dinners at the home of Clinton friend Vernon Jordan this winter, Penn narrated it for the benefit of potential donors.
On some nights, Penn was joined by other Clinton luminaries, such as former commerce secretary Mickey Kantor and economic aide Gene Sperling. After a question-and-answer session, the several dozen guests would walk en masse from the Jordans' home to Clinton's home on Whitehaven Street for dinner.
Penn's pitch went something like this: Of course Hillary Clinton can win the presidency. She is already winning. Or, as Penn put it in an interview when asked to summarize the pitch: "She is ahead in the primaries, ahead or tied in the primary states, ahead in the general, ahead or tied in states like Florida and Ohio."
Turning again to the data, he mapped out a specific strategy for victory in the electoral college: luring to the Democratic Party several percentage points' worth of women as well as more Hispanics, two groups to which Clinton traditionally appeals.
"When you look at this thing nationally -- how is she going to win -- I think it's really important to look at what were the two groups that defected from the Democrats in 2004 to give it to Bush," Penn said. "And those were women and Latino voters. And almost all the change in that election from 2000 was among those two groups, and those are her two strongest groups. And I think that's some of the reason you see her doing so well in places like Ohio and Florida -- because I think those are both states that she could take."
And then, he said, "you won't have to go any further on the map."
Penn's theory of the 2008 race has always been that after two tumultuous terms under Bush, the electorate will want change -- but not too much change. Clinton offers a perfect mix, Penn believes. She inherently represents change, as a woman, without being unfamiliar or untested, thanks to her many years in Washington.
Penn did not anticipate that another Democrat might come along with a similar ability to fit that bill -- as supporters of Obama, who would be the first black president, believe he can -- but he says Clinton has another advantage in her ability to appeal to the underprivileged. Penn believes, and independent surveys confirm, that she outperforms other Democrats among lower-income voters, especially members of a family of four making less than $75,000 a year.
"She has a very, very strong base among the Democratic primary voters -- first and foremost among voters who have real needs, people who may not have health care, people worried about losing a job, people who know someone serving in the war, people in the working and middle class, people whose lives really depend upon having the kind of champion and advocate that Hillary represents," Penn said.
His concerns, to the extent he has any, are about getting the "Hillary story" out -- humanizing her. At a recent gathering of donors, Penn said, he asked the group: "Who here knows where Hillary is from?"
"Not one, really, guessed that it was in the Chicago suburbs," Penn said. "They really didn't know. They drew a blank. So, a lot of people always say to me, well, they know everything about Hillary. It's not true. There's really a lot to tell."