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Mark Penn Gets Run Over on the Way to the White House

Clinton Strategist's Prestige Diminished as Campaign Loses Momentum

By Published on . 3

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Last summer, when Hillary Clinton's nomination was a question of when, not if, her chief adviser, too, had an aura of inevitability around him. Mark Penn, the longtime Clinton pollster whose other job is running one of the largest PR firms in the world, seemed ready to transcend the drab world of spreadsheets and segmentation. Not only was he the brains behind the presumptive nominee, but his quaint worldview was enshrined in the hot-selling book "Microtrends," a compendium of subtle cultural, social and economic shifts that, the author argues, are key to understanding how people act.
Mark Penn
Photo: Luis Magán

Mark Penn

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The stage was set, in other words, for Mr. Penn to take a Karl Rove-like place in the American consciousness as the brilliant, behind-the-scenes demographer and data analyst, emerging to shape political communications on the grandest stage of all. Then Ms. Clinton and Mr. Penn were hit by the juggernaut that is Barack Obama and a campaign based not on segmentation but on an idea of change that, though often vague, clearly has hit the right emotional pitch for Democratic voters.

The sexiness and broad appeal of that idea has left "Clinton's PowerPointer," as the Washington Post described Mr. Penn a year ago, presiding over a campaign increasingly seen by Democrats as a strife-ridden and stubborn self-indulgence that could actually harm the party in the general-election battle against a rested and ready John McCain -- especially if the Obama vs. Clinton battle snarls its way to the convention in August. In short, Mr. Microtrend was undone by a macrotrend: A large swath of voters, it turned out, didn't want another political dynasty or "experience." They wanted transformation.

"Originally positioning her as the establishment and inevitable candidate in a year of change was a big mistake," said veteran political consultant Bob Shrum, who ran John Kerry's ill-fated presidential bid four years ago. "At the beginning of the campaign, Penn had a theory of the case that was wrong. They were rerunning the 1996 re-election campaign. And Hillary, who could be the first female president of the United States, could have and should have run as a candidate of change."

Just about everyone agrees that that sense of entitlement within the Clinton campaign was a major setback early on, as was the lack of a game plan beyond Super Tuesday. The misstep could have stemmed from Mr. Penn's lack of experience in tightly contested primary elections, Mr. Shrum said. "The only ones he has ever been involved in that I know of were in 1996, and President Clinton had no opponent," he said. "What he had in his head was the model he lived through 1996, and it doesn't apply in 2008. So we're back to a very old-fashioned, kitchen-sink, take-out-the-flame-throwers-and-just-attack-attack-attack approach."

From the old school
Other big-name Democrats also have put Mr. Penn in the crosshairs recently. Clinton loyalist Leon Panetta, in a Feb. 26 article in The New York Observer, called Mr. Penn a "pollster from the past." The former White House chief of staff complained about the campaign's lack of planning. "I never considered [Mr. Penn] someone who would run a national campaign for the presidency," he said. "[Mr. Penn] comes from an old school, like Karl Rove. It's all about dividing people into smaller groups rather than taking the broader approach."

Joe Trippi, who oversaw Howard Dean's grass-roots challenge in 2004, said in an interview that the fact that anyone could miss the macrotrend of hunger for change, which he said began with Mr. Dean and established itself even more definitively in the 2006 midterm elections, is "astonishing."

"They had to at least feel the vibration and macro for change that was going on in the country," Mr. Trippi said. "If they lose, that's going to be why they lost. This was a macro that was hard to miss."

Another factor that helped knock some of the shine off Mr. Penn was the Sybil-like personality changes of the campaign and Ms. Clinton, who, unlike Mr. Obama, didn't seem to be able to choose what she wanted her brand to represent. Throughout the course of the campaign, she has gone from the tough realist to the emotional mother to an Obama wannabe to finally a classic aggressive politician looking for her opponent's weaknesses. There's been no consistency, which is as bad for a political brand as it is for a corporate one.

But it's not just in the strategy department where Mr. Penn has come up short. Mr. Penn, who is the CEO of PR giant Burson-Marsteller, has been a frequent spokesman for the campaign, and, it suffices to say, he is no James Carville. Sure, he has the adjective "rumpled" attached to him as though it's his middle name, and he's by definition wonky, but others have overcome those deficiencies to act as articulate, even charming frontmen for their campaigns. Mr. Penn comes off as smart but awkward and, at times, smarmy.

Roger Simon, chief political columnist for Politico.com, said the first time he saw a chink in the armor came early on in the campaign while watching Mr. Penn in a post-debate interview on live TV. "No matter how smart he is, he's just not who you want out there winging it on live TV," Mr. Simon said. "You don't necessarily want him to be the public face of the campaign. Do I think that cost her any state anywhere? No. But do I think it was good for her? No."

Who's in charge here?
Perhaps the best example of this is the public pissing match over whether Mr. Penn was the top adviser in the campaign. From the beginning, it was widely reported that Mr. Penn was top dog in the Clinton camp; among the evidence was a front-page article last April in The Washington Post that identified him as her chief strategist. But as recently as March 3, Mr. Penn, whether out of a feeling that it was time to go into survival mode or a desire to set a long-inaccurate record straight, told the Los Angeles Times via e-mail that he had "no direct authority" in how Ms. Clinton has run her campaign. "[I'm] an outside message adviser with no campaign staff reporting to me," he told the paper. "I have had no say or involvement in ... the financial budget and resource allocation, political or organizational sides."

That was in response to a Feb. 28 article in The New York Observer in which Harold Ickes, assistant to Ms. Clinton's campaign manager, said he felt Mr. Penn was responsible for the collapse of the campaign. "Mark Penn has run this campaign," Mr. Ickes said in the article. "Besides Hillary Clinton, he is the single most responsible person for this campaign." He added that Mr. Penn had dominated campaign messaging and "insists" on being called chief strategist.

It was an ugly moment in a particularly ugly time for the campaign. And since then, it's gotten worse, with most observers putting the likelihood of Ms. Clinton pulling out the nomination in the single digits. For a while now, the campaign has put a lot of weight on the primary in Pennsylvania, where Ms. Clinton had been polling well—right up until last week. But numbers from Public Policy Polling released April 2 showed Mr. Obama had overcome a 26 point deficit and was leading 45 to 43. Even in polls that show Ms. Clinton in the lead, Mr. Obama is gaining ground. Conventional wisdom is shaping up that Mr. Obama has withstood his greatest challenge to date -- the circulation of videos of his pastor engaging in hate speech against white people -- without losing much momentum.

It's unclear how a loss would affect Mr. Penn's brand, which extends into the corporate world. He will be a target for finger-pointing, but unlike with most professions, losses are an accepted part of political consulting. Mr. Shrum, who lost to George W. Bush twice, is evidence of that.

Politico's Mr. Simon said the Clinton campaign will serve as a case study to be reviewed by future candidates, especially those thinking about making their chief strategist and chief pollster the same person. "The problem is your polls tend to support your strategy, and your strategy tends to support your polls, because you are the same guy," Mr. Simon said. "Every now and then in a campaign, it's good for someone to say, 'I don't care what the polls say; this doesn't feel right, and we should have a different strategy.' Combining them creates certain problems for campaigns."

Waning reliance on Penn
In mid-March, the Clinton campaign brought aboard Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who has a lot of experience polling in Pennsylvania as well as other sites for the coming primaries. It's not hard to read this move as a possible indication that Ms. Clinton's belief and reliance on Mr. Penn may be starting to wane. Others believe it's a move intended to satisfy the anxious anti-Penn donors and those, like Mr. Simon, who think the campaign's lead strategist shouldn't be polling his own ideas.

Through a spokesman for Burson-Marsteller, Mr. Penn declined to comment. However, Howard Paster, exec VP-public relations and public affairs at Burson parent WPP Group, did agree to an interview, though he wouldn't talk about the job Mr. Penn has done politically. Mr. Paster, who is taking a 50% pay cut so he can volunteer on the Clinton campaign, said he has been pleased with the results at Burson in the past two years, and there's no indication the amount of time Mr. Penn has spent on the campaign has been detrimental to the agency or its growth. His polling firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, a part of Burson-Marsteller, has received more than $10 million in fees for its work on the campaign.

"What we have here is a classic case of victory with 1,000 fathers and defeat being an orphan," Mr. Paster said. "So everybody gets blamed. The fact is, she's in the game, and if she wins, this will all be history, and if she doesn't, there will be finger-pointing. ... The political game is one you don't play unless you have thick skin."
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