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Dispatches: Greenberg's Rejoinder to Penn

02/23/2009 12:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This guest pollster contribution from Stan Greenberg is part of Pollster.com's week-long series on his new book, Dispatches from the War Room and responds to comments from Mark Penn in Mark Blumenthal's post earlier today.  Greenberg is chairman and CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.

To avoid this discussion descending into an ugly mud-wrestling match between two squabbling pollsters, I will only take up issues where the "facts" are indisputable and where we learn something about Tony Blair and political leadership and about differing approaches to polling and strategy.

What this exchange reveals even more clearly than the book itself are the limits of building a strategy from a coterie of target groups, rather than from the leader's vision or party's mission for the times. It underscores the need for frankness about what is holding voters back and the need to challenge leaders with blunt truths. It underscores the need for transparency and methodological rigor.

Penn's basic argument is straightforward. He took over the campaign's polling in July 2004 about nine months before the election when Blair was at a low point, working under Philip Gould, Blair's long time advisor for research and media. Greenberg was pushed out and was in no position to judge the character of Penn's work, as he was "not in the loop." Seems straightforward enough.

When I first learned in December of Penn's involvement and in January of our dividing the polling, I was convinced that Gould had played just such a role and I wrote about it. I was wrong. Philip was hurt by the accusation that he had concealed Penn's involvement and wrote me with detailed diary entrees that show he only learned of it in September and resisted Penn's involvement until the end of the year, when he decided to "make the best of it."

Penn's premature rush to anoint himself as Blair's pollster obscures Blair's effort to examine competing solutions to the problems he faced. In May, Blair had reached a low point in the polls, dragged down by Iraq, the "hyping" of pre-war intelligence and Abu Ghraib. He was very despondent, seriously considering not running again and consulted widely, including with President Clinton and Senator Clinton who urged him to run and to use Penn.

Penn offered his own path back for Blair, aided by huge surveys and "clustering work" that coughed up "school gate mums" as a key target. Because Labour got its highest marks on the economy, his message started there, but Penn's emphasis was on policies that appeal to the groups that can grow Blair's coalition. Penn's imprint was immediately evident in Blair's September conference speech when he spoke of the stresses of the need for "more choice for mums at home and at work." Blair's policy offer was grounded in this clustering and coalition building.

At the very same time, we were commissioned by Phillip to do a special research project and I reported in July with a very different approach to the problem - centered on New Labour's central mission. For the first time in a long time, respondents shifted to Labour on hearing of Blair's commitment to "a better life for hardworking families," though only when Blair expressed his own frustration with the state of public service reform and offered some learning by showing independence from Bush on climate change. Iraq was the elephant in the room. Finding a way to acknowledge it, even indirectly, allowed people to come back to Blair's project.

In the September party conference speech, Blair was eloquent about "hardworking families," but just could not get himself to be reflective on Iraq - perhaps with Penn's support. That was the learning voters needed if they were to come back.

I respect Blair for rejecting my advice and deciding to go with Penn who did not push him to address the Iraq question and who offered a way to make electoral gains. The mistake was not firing me and leaving both of us in the campaign.

In fact, I have all of Penn's memos - about a two-inch pile on my desk at the moment, available for inspection by Mr. Blumenthal. Philip's note to me confirms he shared all of them during the course of the campaign, as did many of my friends "in the loop."

The whole concept of "in the loop" betrays a lack of transparency and openness in Penn's approach to campaigns - painfully evident in the Blair campaign, perhaps a precursor to Hillary Clinton's presidential run two years later.

Pollsters as a rule share the results for all their questions and hypotheses, even the ones that didn't pan out. In the Blair campaign, Penn provided a memo with large tables including only the questions he wanted to report; he did not provide a standard book of demographic cross-tabulations. Read Penn's words carefully, "The campaign received all of the agendas, marginals, as requested without reservation." In short, he provided breakouts only when asked, in effect keeping his own client and campaign team "out of the loop."

The surveys were methodologically sloppy and included biased tests, though it is important to underscore here that Philip Gould came to value Penn's research and rejects my characterization of it in the book.

Specifically:

1) Penn failed to incorporate professional learning from Britain. Penn national polling - not some errant tracking program - showed Labour with landslide leads of 8 or 9 points for the entire six weeks prior to the election being called. Penn discovered just 27 days before the election what every pollster in Britain has knows: you have to weight to offset the "shy Tories" - Conservatives reluctant to be interviewed. In an instant, the Tories gained 6 points in Penn's polls.

2) Penn's fixed targeting let real targets slip away. With Penn focused on "mums," the campaign regularly rolled out initiatives on breast cancer screening and childhood obesity. But voters in the key marginal seats were older and among those most likely to return to Labour, two-thirds had no children at home and found this campaign irrelevant.

3) Penn exaggerated the reliability of findings. Penn conducted a valuable weekly open-ended Internet panel of undecided voters. When the sample dropped to 100, so did the reporting of sample size that produced a testy email exchange that restored it. Still, Penn reported this as a "Survey of Undecided Swing Voters" and reported the full percentage results over 18 pages, including results for men and women, with about 50 cases each.

4) Penn created biased tests. Two weeks before the election, Penn declared that "our policy approach remains stronger than the Tories," but the Labour statement was more than twice as long, with more rhetorical flourishes and covering a much broader range of policies with greater specificity (which I'm happy to share). Even with this biased test, the Conservative's statement ran 6 points ahead of its vote. An unbiased test might have revealed potential Tory gains.

To inform the decision of whether to close positively or negatively, Penn constructed a sensible experiment where half the respondents were read positive statements about Labour's progress and half read attacks on the Conservatives' record and plans, and then respondents were asked to vote again. But this was not meant to be a fair test. The negative statements were 50 percent longer by word count and helped foreclose an uplifting close.

Penn describes the 2005 third-term as "historic" but in the campaign everyone was disappointed with the result, what the media called Labour's "drastically reduced majority," produced by a disengaged electorate and historically low turnout. Many factors contributed to the result, but among them were Penn's research, not to mention having two polling teams with different theories on how to win.