THE BLOG
02/25/2009 11:03 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gould: Greenberg versus Penn, Continued

[This Guest Pollster contribution comes from Philip Gould, who served as a polling and strategy adviser to the British Labour Party for general elections held from 1987 until 2005.

Editor's note: Gould was a central figure in the dispute between pollsters Stan Greenberg and Mark Penn that we have covered this week, as he was responsible for managing the services that each provided to the Labour Party. He submitted his comments to Pollster.com in an effort to help clarify and resolve some of the issues raised here this week.

Since I emphasized the question of whether Penn delivered complete marginals and cross-tabulations, I want to promote the following paragraphs that come toward then end of Gould's memo:

After a poll Stan normally presented a filled in questionnaire, a full banner book containing complete cross tabs.

Mark had a different approach. Following a poll he quickly made available a full and extensive polling report. This went immediate to the whole campaign. This was not an inconsiderable document. I have one in front of me now: it is 18 pages long; it contains historic voting and favourability data; it closely examines 12 targeting groups ranging from rural lower class Conservatives to union households; it uses seven different batteries to examine campaign issues. It analyses responses to the news and key policy areas. And of course it contains numerous message batteries: in all well over 100 questions were asked and recorded. All of these were analysed by voting preferences, and sometimes by demographic categories.

These reports were extensive and useful documents, far in excess of a normal filled in campaign questionnaire. They did not constitute a full banner book and did not contain 'full marginal's' in the manner favoured by Stan Greenberg, but what Penn did supply was both exhaustive and useful, and certainly met the regular needs of the campaign. As one senior campaign official with responsibility for polling in 2005 has said: 'Mark Penn 'could quite fairly argue that the memos were intended for an audience that had no time or interest in delving into every corner of the data. I don't think that in any way illegitimises the findings or his advice'. On a personal note Mark Penn invariably supplied any additional cross tab or targeting data that I required, and I presume the same is true of others. Two pollsters, two approaches.

Gould's piece covers far more ground than this narrow excerpt.  It is well worth reading in full. 

-- Mark Blumenthal]

I am aware that intercession in the Greenberg/Penn polling war can precipitate what has probably never happened before: uniting Stan and Mark in the face of a common enemy (i.e. me). But with all the risks it entails I will press on. From the start I must declare an interest- I suspect I am one of the very few people around who can claim that they like and respect both Greenberg and Penn (I can already feel them starting to unite against me!). I worked with Stan for well over ten years and believe him to be an outstanding pollster and strategist. I worked with Mark for a much shorter time, and came to greatly appreciate his skills too, different from Stan's certainly, but considerable for all that. It is in that spirit that I write this piece.

There are so many issues here, of methodology, strategy, personality and of course memory that getting to the truth of what actually happened in the UK election campaign of 2005 is probably impossible, but I will try at least to clear away some of the fog. Not by focusing on the smaller, although I accept crucial disagreements between the two pollsters, but by trying to paint a bigger picture, and using where possible contemporary sources, notes written at the time, my rather sketchy diary, and in particular a lecture I made to the LSE on the campaign in 2006 which pretty accurately sums up what I believe about the campaign.

[Continue reading after the jump]

For me the starting point was a letter faxed to me by Stan in 1992 asking me to fly to Little Rock to observe the Clinton campaign, and to debrief on the negative campaigning that the Conservatives had used to win the 1992 election in the UK.

'I left immediately and in a way it saved my political life, taking me from a failing and dismal Labour project, to a world of political confidence and optimism. I wrote about this later: 'I still vividly recall arriving in Little Rock in 1992 still stunned by Labour's awful defeat in that same year, feeling the late summer heat as I left the airport, and arriving at the campaign headquarters and seeing a whole new world of possibility emerge. I remember the kindness I received; embarrassed by our failure in Britain but being told that defeat was a step on the road to victory, a badge of honour not of blame. Above all I remember the incredible energy and pulsating life of the campaign, its extraordinary confidence, and the way it had simply revolutionised the way campaigns had been run.'

I learned much in that campaign, and bought most of it back to the UK, including Stan Greenberg who became our pollster in 1994 when Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party

For ten years Stan was part of the team, but by 2004 there were signs of dissatisfaction on both sides. You can clearly sense in Stan's book a growing sense of disenchantment with the New Labour project, provoked in part by the Iraq war but deeper than that. Equally there was in Downing Street a sense that it was time for new voices, and new ideas, in the face of mounting political difficulty. This was not my view but it was the view of some, and in the summer of 2004 Mark Penn was commissioned to conduct a series of polls, to see if new insights could be gained. I was not told of this principally I am sure because of my closeness to Stan (we used to be business partners as well as colleagues). Finally in mid-Sept I was told of Penn's involvement, and informed that Downing Street wanted to use Mark but keep Stan involved. I was mandated to manage both relationships, which was not to prove an easy task.

In December I told Stan of Mark's involvement, and it was a pretty grim meeting which caused me some distress. In his book Stan claims that I was afraid to meet with him alone to inform him which was quite untrue as I did tell him, was the first to do so, and did so with just the two of us present. By then I had started to have meetings with Mark Penn and so began the period of dual pollsters. This situation continued through 2005 until the election in May. Stan hated it and was clearly resentful and unhappy - but he kept going, and made the best of it. In the campaign itself Stan felt more unhappy still, with Mark Penn the dominant pollster. I certainly do not claim that I handled Stan perfectly in this period, and was too irascible and sometimes angry. I regret that, especially when it sometimes rubbed off on Sam Weston his excellent assistant on the campaign. It was tough dealing with two formidable pollsters, but I do not agree with Stan that it would have been better if he had left the campaign in 2004, as he suggests in his recent posting. In the first place there was the issue of loyalty to Stan, who had helped us so well over so many years. Secondly I felt that in this campaign, fighting as it was the headwinds of public hostility on Iraq and other issues, that more voices were better than less. Greenberg and Penn are very different pollsters, with very different approaches, and crucially with very different value sets, but both have significant contributions to make. Stan puts methodological exactitude first: he is the Volvo of pollsters highly engineered and meticulously thorough. He is strategically astute, but follows the data carefully because he has so much respect for it. His politics are modernising but rooted hard in fairness based populism: his favourite dividing line will always be based on a contrast between the many not the few, his emotional heartland will always remain hardworking families. He is a natural iconoclast, always challenging, often doubting, and leading him sometimes to put flexibility ahead of consistency. Mark also uses and understands data well but leans to strategy ahead of data, and he can be strategically brilliant. He prefers consistency to flexibility, believing that a strategic position once adopted should be held unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary. His instinct is to stick rather than to shift. Mark's politics are far less populist than Stan's, favouring aspiration to fairness as a guiding concept.

This then was the background to Stan's book, and to Mark response to it. If that is the context, what then of the issues - I will take them in turn.

1 Mark is wrong to say that I knew of his work from the outset, I did not. I first discovered Penn's involvement in the Labour Party election campaign on September 13th.

I repeat verbatim my diary entry for that day:

'Sally (Morgan) said to me: look we have been using Mark Penn for a polling project with Tony and we want you manage that relationship, and they were worried about Stan. I was very shocked by this, that behind my back I think they had conducted at least two and possibly three polls, and had a complete operation going since the July period. They did not want to involve me because they did not want to hurt Stan'.

This account will be supported by many who worked at Downing Street and on the campaign, and is unarguably the truth of what happened.

2 I disagree with Stan's characterisation of the campaign as over-rigid, and too inflexible. In my 2006 LSE lecture I explain why I believed that in this campaign consistency was at a premium, not least because of our determination to avoid the fate of the Kerry campaign. I wrote then:

'In truth Senator Kerry was trapped by ambivalence, not certain about the war, and he found it hard to appear certain about anything else. He had very talented advisers but he did not have a political project. The flexibility of the war room, essential twelve years ago was inadequate as a compass in the rough and treacherous waters of a nation at war. We needed battle ships not light cruisers. In Britain we watched and we learned. This time the view of the campaign at almost every level, and certainly my absolute conviction, was that in a time of uncertainty, turbulence, and electoral sullenness the first imperative was absolute strategic clarity, robustness, and constancy. That is why we were so determined to show courage and consistency under fire. To hold our nerve and certainty despite all the usual noises off. Above all to be strategic not tactical. That is why we were so determined to make the economy not just the campaign message but the campaign anchor, repeated endlessly until it broke through. Why Tony Blair and Gordon Brown campaigned together to hammer home the economic message. Why our message was simple and potent -Forward not back- and why it was repeated endlessly from the start of the campaign until the finish. The vicissitudes of terror, war and insecurity made robust confident clarity essential but the need to engage had not disappeared nor had the need to listen and respond as the public vented anger and concern. In our campaign strength and connection had to learn to co-exist. This was the paradox of the 2005 campaign. We had to be confident and strong in our message and leadership, but sensitive and responsive in our relations with the electorate. And these two apparently conflicting imperatives had to be implemented simultaneously, strong and responsive at one and the same time.'

This was the campaign we hoped to build and I believe we did: consistent, but also flexible, constant but also responsive. In my judgment it was this balance of strength and responsiveness that took us through to victory. And our polling played a big part in this.

3 I do not agree with Mark Penn that the distribution of polling information was restricted, and nor do I agree with Stan that the polling was rigged. The very nature of the campaign, the need for a plurality of polling sources, the immediate and rapid distribution of polling information make both positions impossible. Once again I wrote in 2006:

'The third element of connection was a new approach to polling which I called 'wrap around polling'. Which is diagnostic; intuitive; responsive; multi-faceted and pluralist, but also systematic and rigorous. We wanted polling not just to tell us what had happened, but to alert us to what might happen. To be a kind of early warning system to anticipate where an uneasy and dissatisfied public might flare up in protest or anger. Effectively research became radar for the election. To do this we used multitude of polling instruments: strategic message polling; standard daily tracking; internet panels of various sizes; marginal polling; daily focus groups. And this polling was not kept tight to a small group of insiders but distributed widely and openly throughout the campaign. Basically if anyone wanted to see the polling they could. The old days when a pollster is effectively Doctor dispensing tough medicine to uninformed politicians are gone. We are all polling experts now, or at least equal partners in the polling process. This approach was effective. For example the Prime Minister had always said that the issue of immigration should be left until the public turned against Michael Howard the Conservative leader when he went too far on the issue which he inevitably did. Night after night we tracked the public response on the issue seeing it move from whole hearted support of Howard on the issue, to a gradual bemusement that it was all they appeared to talk about, to a kind of contempt that this was the only issue they had, and they seemed to exploiting race for reasons of political advantage. At this point we pounced and the Prime Minister made a powerful speech arguing for a balanced approach to immigration shredding Tory polices and assumptions. That was the end of immigration as an issue in that campaign'

This was the culture of polling in the campaign, as pluralist as possible, and as open as possible. Every poll that Mark did, Stan got and so did everyone else. In this context I simply cannot agree with Stan that the polling was rigged, because there was so much of it, and it was so varied in methodology and type. Mark Penn's polls had so many questions, that were so varied, and which had so much outside input into them, that 'rigging' them seems impossible to me, and too strong a word to use. Equally it is not true to suggest, as Mark claims, that 'Stan was out of the loop', and to suggest that he could not be trusted with 'highly sensitive questions' is completely false. Everything the campaign got Stan got, and the campaign got everything, in its distribution of polling information this was probably the most open campaign the Labour Party had ever conducted.

4 I am confident that our strategy was right, and feel that Stan is unfair to it. At the core was a relentless focus on the economy, which dominated all else. That was the absolute bedrock of our campaign, everything else secondary to it. We did focus on women voters, and in particular younger female voters, and this focus worked, as the evidence shows. In the Ipsos-Mori exit poll we were shown to be level with men, but led by 6 points with women. Our focus on women gave us consistency, and gained us the vital votes we needed to win, as well as being in my judgement, the right and progressive thing to have done. As for older voters it was not those that deserted us but younger voters, as Stan acknowledges in his book.

5 Mark is wrong to say that Stan worked for Gordon Brown, and Mark for the Prime Minister. Both pollsters worked for the Labour Party, and in the campaign all information was shared. We are a party system, not a presidential one.

6 As for forecasting landslides: both pollsters got close to doing so, but at different times in the campaign. At the end Stan was probably more optimistic than Mark; at the campaign start the reverse was true. Stan's marginal polling was exemplary and accurate, but it was Mark's last major poll that was accurate to within one point.

7 On Iraq I did not 'delete' messages on Iraq as the book claims, certainly not as a consequence of polling by Mark Penn of which I had no knowledge. To give you an example, in one mid-summer polls that Stan mentions there are several Iraq batteries, and many references to Iraq as an issue. In any event it was not within my power to 'delete' anything, I was just one member of a team who collectively supervised questionnaires.

8 Finally one of the most contentious points of all: Did Mark Penn make available the 'agenda's, marginal and cross-tabs as requested and without reservation'. This is a grey area, but I will try and clear it up.

After a poll Stan normally presented a filled in questionnaire, a full banner book containing complete cross tabs.

Mark had a different approach. Following a poll he quickly made available a full and extensive polling report. This went immediate to the whole campaign. This was not an inconsiderable document. I have one in front of me now: it is 18 pages long; it contains historic voting and favourability data; it closely examines 12 targeting groups ranging from rural lower class Conservatives to union households; it uses seven different batteries to examine campaign issues. It analyses responses to the news and key policy areas. And of course it contains numerous message batteries: in all well over 100 questions were asked and recorded. All of these were analysed by voting preferences, and sometimes by demographic categories.

These reports were extensive and useful documents, far in excess of a normal filled in campaign questionnaire. They did not constitute a full banner book and did not contain 'full marginal's' in the manner favoured by Stan Greenberg, but what Penn did supply was both exhaustive and useful, and certainly met the regular needs of the campaign. As one senior campaign official with responsibility for polling in 2005 has said: 'Mark Penn 'could quite fairly argue that the memos were intended for an audience that had no time or interest in delving into every corner of the data. I don't think that in any way illegitimises the findings or his advice'. On a personal note Mark Penn invariably supplied any additional cross tab or targeting data that I required, and I presume the same is true of others. Two pollsters, two approaches.

These are the big points, there are many small ones, but this is not the time or the place for that.

My overall view is clear: the strategy was right, the balance between consistency and flexibility was right, the polling open and freely available, the campaign a success, conducted in the war-room spirit but in 2004 not 1992. Penn made a major contribution to that success, and deserves credit for that. Mark came into a new and difficult situation and helped give the campaign the consistency and strategic clarity. Whatever people say about Mark in other campaigns, and at other times, in this campaign he got most things right and did so with grace and good humour. I very much enjoyed working with him. Stan of course hated the whole process and I understand why. But he showed great courage in keeping going and got much right, particularly in his marginal polling. He played a part not just in one election but three, and he should be proud of that.

In all this lies the truth, but it is not clear-cut, nor certain. Finding the truth is never easy, and in any event it is always multi-faceted and complex, especially in a tense hard fought election campaign as this was.

This has been a long piece but unless you understand the circumstances of that campaign you have no chance at all of understanding why Stan wrote that book, and why Mark responded as he did.

In the end there is another, deeper truth. The battle between these pollsters may be intriguing to us, but in the great scheme of things it is politicians and leaders who decide, who make successful campaigns, and build great political projects. One of the most powerful recurring themes of this book is how Stan laments the fact Tony Blair so often ignored his advice and just went his own way. That was true of Stan, but was also true of me and Mark Penn as well. Tony Blair listened to pollsters and advisers but in the end went his own way on his own terms. He marched to his own drum. That may have led to bumps along the way, but that is why he was then, and still is, a great political leader. He listened, but he led. When the final histories are written, it is not Stan's or Mark's or my view that will matter, but the actions and decisions of politicians entrusted with the responsibility of leadership. We should all have the humility to recognise who are the real hero's in the world of politics that we all love so much.