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Political Detective

Binyamin Rose, Washington D.C.

Mark Penn conducted his first poll as an elementary school student, yet over the next 50 years, leaders from all over the world bought into his pioneering polling techniques

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

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“Polling was always my hobby because it was a fascinating notion that you could find out what people were thinking through a series of questions and answers. It’s much like detective work” (Photos: Eli Greengart, Archive Photos: Eric Jeng)

Behind Mark Penn's desk in his K Street office in Washington, D.C., stands a man-sized model of a US spacecraft, a gift he received following a speech he once gave at a Chamber of Commerce event in Alabama, the state where the rocket was manufactured.

“I liked it because of the idea that they were thinking about the future and focusing on that, and so I keep it in my office,” Penn said.

Focusing on the future is a trademark of the polling and political strategy industry where Penn has made his mark since the 1970s.

Some 25 of the world’s most famous politicians owe Penn a debt of gratitude for the role he played in their election wins, including President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, and even New York Mayor Ed Koch.

Nowadays, the classic ad for a presidential campaign poses the question: Who do you want to answer the phone at 3 a.m. when it rings with a national emergency?

It was Mark Penn who came up with that idea for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

For Hillary’s husband, Penn conceived the concept of “soccer moms” as a distinct voter group of suburban working mothers, fine-tuning President Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign to pay heed to their concerns. That strategy lifted Clinton to an easy reelection victory in 1996, two years after Democrats bombed in Congressional midterm elections.

Across the pond, British voters will always remember Tony Blair’s narrow victory to an unprecedented third term as prime minister in 2005, under the campaign slogan Penn devised: Forward, Not Back.

And it was Penn, early in his career, along with two partners, who helped Menachem Begin overcome an early 20-point deficit in the polls to narrowly defeat Shimon Peres in Israel’s June 1981 elections.

Today, Penn is president and managing partner of The Stagwell Group, a diverse private equity firm that conducts marketing research, data analytics, public relations, and digital marketing for a wide range of political and business clients. Penn still dabbles in polling, running the Harvard-Harris Poll, as part of The Stagwell Group.

 

He’s a sought-after political commentator, making the rounds on a variety of cable TV news programs, and writing op-eds. Penn is animated when he speaks, leaning forward to make a point and pausing briefly when he wants to frame his answers. He defines himself as a political centrist — one reason such a wide range of politicians have placed their confidence and trust in him.

Although Penn is a numbers guy, he knows how to take the numbers from the realm of the theoretical to the practical.

“Tony Blair once said to me, ‘I feel like I’m standing in front of a locked door without a key.’ My goal is to help them find the key,” Penn said. “I view my work as an intersection of public opinion, policy, and fighting for what you believe in,” Penn said. “You have to have that combination. If you’re really doing a sophisticated job, you have a set of numbers, which gives you a kind of model of behavior, and you then have some actions that come from that model.”

That combination has earned Penn high praise from his most prominent clients. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 704)

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