The Washington Post

Ed Koch, polling pioneer

Ed Koch wasn't just a quote-machine -- he was also a campaign innovator. His 1977 New York City mayoral campaign was the first (or one of the first) to use overnight polling.

Ed Koch, left, and his pollster Mark Penn. Photo courtesy of Mark Penn

Pollster Mark Penn was still in college when he and prep school friend Douglas Schoen were hired by consultant David Garth to work for Koch's mayoral campaign. At the time, Koch was an obscure congressman in the crowded Democratic primary. About six percent of New Yorkers knew who he was. He had run unsuccessfully for mayor in 1973, dropping out after just six weeks. Garth's slogan for Koch: “After eight years of charisma" (John Lindsay)" and four years of the clubhouse" (Abe Beam) "why not try competence?” (Koch beat out Mario Cuomo, later elected governor of the Empire State, in that 1977 race.)

But was it working? Back then, to get polling data, you had to go through university computers, which took days; there was no way to get immediate feedback on an ad campaign. So Penn, who later went on to work for President Bill Clinton, bought and assembled a computer to do his own overnight polling. (He had taken a programming class at Harvard.) "That's what enabled us to have the really first instant overnight polling that a campaign could have," Penn said Friday.

Penn and Schoen stayed on as Koch's pollsters through 1989, when the mayor ran for a fourth term but lost the Democratic primary to David Dinkins.

But like many politicians, Koch sometimes refused to accept his own data. In the 1982 gubernatorial race, even after Koch told Playboy that living in Albany would be a "fate worse than death," the New York Post had him winning by 17 points. Penn and Schoen had him losing. "No one believed our poll, even him," Penn said. "I have somewhere a letter that says, your poll was right after all."

Overnight polling isn't likely what won Koch the 1977 election. You can probably thank Rupert Murdoch for that. But it was a campaign innovation that will go down in history -- just like Koch himself.

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.



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