How Many Pollsters?

06/13/2008 02:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An astute reader asks:

One critique that many commentators had of Clinton and her relationship with Mark Penn was that it might have been a bad idea to have only one pollster and have that person serve as chief strategist. I read the Obama team has four. But, I was wondering, what's conventional as far as number of pollsters in a campaign. Obviously, it would vary in different kinds of races.

Let's start with that last point. Presidential campaigns, and especially the Obama and Clinton campaigns of 2008, belong in their own special category of "normal." Most campaigns for Senate, Governor or Congress hire only one manager, one pollster, one media consultant because that is all they can afford. Presidential campaigns also have unique challenge of needing to poll in many states at once. For the general election, for example, you can assume that both campaigns will conduct internal benchmark surveys between now and Labor Day in 30 to 40 states, and will likely conduct ongoing tracking programs in at least 20 during the fall campaign.

That is a lot of work, and so the multi-poll structure of the Obama campaign is not unusual. Back in 1992, Stan Greenberg was the lead pollster for Bill Clinton's campaign for president, but he invited four more Democratic firms to conduct surveys in various general election battleground states. Among those was the firm formerly known as Bennett, Petts and Blumenthal (although technically, my name did not go on the door until 1995).

Speaking of which, the Obama campaign is now up to six pollsters, not just four, including my former business partner Anna Bennett. As The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza reports, the Obama campaign is dividing up their advertising, polling and direct mail efforts into six teams:

On the polling front, the changes are more marginal, as Obama had already been using five different firms to conduct the massive amount of survey research required during the protracted primary fight.

Cornell Belcher (Brilliant Corners), Joel Benenson (Benenson Strategy Group), Paul Harstad (Harstad Strategic Research), David Binder (David Binder Research) and Anna Bennett (Bennett Petts & Normington) will all continue to do polling for the campaign. The new addition is John Anzalone (Anzalone Liszt Research), a rising star in the political polling world who has wins in two southern House special elections -- Louisiana's 6th and Mississippi's 1st -- under his belt already this year.

And in fairness, Hillary Clinton's campaign also involved more pollsters than just Mark Penn. Although they famously demoted Penn and promoted Geoff Garin (of the Garin Hart Yang Research Group), Garin had been brought on board already, along with Diane Feldman (The Feldman Group) and Sergio Bendixen (Bendixen and Associates), to assist with the crush of polling needed for February 5 and beyond.

But to come back to the gist of the reader's question, the Obama campaign's relationship with its pollsters and other consultants does appear to be different than Clinton's, even if the contrast is less about the head count than about philosophy. Consider these comments from Penn himself, in the lengthy GQ interview that has had the blogosphere abuzz for the last 24 hours:

Okay, but specifically. What are the one or two or three things that you wish you’d done differently?

I wish in reality that I had a team of people, you know, who was with me, that I organized, as I had in ’96. Look, remember, a big difference between me and a lot of people is that I’ve been doing this for thirty years. I’ve run the successful strategy of a presidential campaign in ’96. I’ve run overseas campaigns like Tony Blair’s and, you know, been through this on the big scale. And in ’96, I had a close-knit team that really ran everything. And this was not organized that way.

Why couldn’t you bring your team this time?

I think this was organized in a way which, you know, some people think is a better organization—to have, instead of a team, almost a group of rivals. And you know, one would say, overall it worked pretty well. Till October.

By contrast, all reports say the Obama team has lived up to the "no drama" mandate set early on by the candidate. In fact, as Chris Cillizza reported, the fact that none of the new names added by Obama in recent weeks leaked, despite weeks of ongoing interviews, "is a sign of the level of discipline the campaign demands." Cillizza also adds this bit of context, which is easily overlooked:

Splitting the media consultants [and pollsters] into teams focused on specific regions is an idea borrowed from the structure used to great effect in the last few cycles by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The goal of such an approach is to take full advantage of the knowledge about a particular state or region accrued by a consultant or group of consultants over a series of past campaigns.

I can add that from what I hear, the DCCC/DSCC team approach that has quietly taken hold over the last two election cycles has made for far less "drama" and more teamwork than in prior years.