An interview with Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist
If Hillary Clinton is sworn in as 44th President of the United States in January 2009, the man sitting opposite me in the bar of the Dorchester will become one of the most powerful people in the world. Mark Penn, pollster extraordinaire, adviser to Tony Blair in the 2005 election, and legendary number-cruncher to Bill Clinton is now chief strategist to the Democrat frontrunner and, it is widely believed, Hillary’s alter ego, the man she calls at 7 a.m. wherever she is in the world. In her memoirs, she calls him ‘brilliant and intense’ and ‘shrewd and insightful’.
But it is to discuss Penn’s own book, Microtrends: the Small Forces Behind Today’s Big Changes (Allen Lane, £20), that we are talking over a forest of Diet Cokes today. The book advances the central thesis that the age of thunderous ‘macro-trends’ plotted by writers such as Alvin Toffler (Future Shock) and John Naisbitt (Megatrends) is emphatically at an end.
‘The world may be getting flatter, in terms of globalisation,’ he writes, ‘but it is occupied by six billion little bumps who do not have to follow the herd to be heard. No matter how offbeat their choices, they can now find 100,000 people or more who share their taste for deep fried yak on a stick.’ We are observing ‘the niching of America’, says the 53-year-old pollster, an ever-changing mosaic of ‘small, under-the-radar forces that can involve as little as 1 per cent of the population, but which are powerfully shaping our society’. Choice has prevailed over uniformity. It is ‘the triumph of the Starbucks economy over the Ford economy’.
The book is an excellent read, not least because Penn provides 75 examples of his theory (‘a periodic table of trends’), meaning that Microtrends is also great fun to go back to, and dip into. My favourites were the ‘Young Knitters’, the American teens who knit and talk about it on MySpace, to get into ‘the zone’ (‘it’s therapy, with a hat to take home afterwards’); and ‘Pro-Semites’, goyim who love Jews and Jewish practices so much they actively seek out Jewish spouses or mimic the bar mitvah ritual for their young.
So, I ask, whatever happened to the future of science fiction movies and the Epcot Center where we all expected to walk around in identical pyjamas and eat soya? Penn, dressed in a blue Lauren polo shirt and always keeping one eye on his BlackBerry, chuckles.
‘That vision of society in the future was really that we were going to be so big that we’d have no choice but to eliminate personal choice. And so we would all dress, act, look the same, and the State would get bigger and more controlling. At least in many societies the opposite has happened. Some combination of an expansion of tolerance — which I think was a critical underpinning to this — the internet itself, the way the means of production and manufacturing changed, I think has instead led to an explosion of personal choice.’
A vivid example, and another of Penn’s groups, are the ‘Internet Marrieds’: once furtive about having met through web introduction services, such couples may soon be seen as proud pioneers, having turned technology into a pathway to personal bliss. ‘Make that Cupid’s Arrow a surgical strike,’ as he puts it.
The intellectual arrow in the book is that some of these trends are not just a source of interest and amusement, but have the potential to change everything. What he calls ‘intense identity groups’ have the capacity to send shockwaves through the social and political system — especially if they reach the critical mass of 1 per cent of a particular target population.
The danger in all this hectic disaggregation, of course, lies in fundamentalist microtrend groups: movements such as militant Islam enabled to flourish in an age of choice which seek to deny choice to everyone else. ‘We found out that if there was going to be a reformation of Islam it would be more likely to come from the US because they have in many ways found out how to co-exist within the society,’ says Penn. ‘The question is within Islam — whether or not they themselves can have microtrends that result in an outcome that goes towards tolerance.’
As CEO of Burson Marsteller and President of Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, he has worked with a huge array of clients (so many, indeed, that his critics allege potential conflicts of interest in his political work — charges he vehemently denies). But he is, first and foremost, a razor-sharp political strategist, the man who famously identified the category of ‘Soccer Moms’ when working for Bill Clinton in 1996: those busy suburban women devoted both to their jobs and their children, with serious anxieties about specific policies, who (unlike their husbands) had yet to make up their minds.
Penn’s methods mark a sharp reaction against the recent obsession with ‘emotional intelligence’ or ‘EQ’ in political practice. He is a pitiless believer in the power of quantitative analysis — being what he himself would call a ‘Numbers Junkie’ — and he is scathing about those who rely upon ‘the naked eye and an eloquent tongue’, adding that ‘non-quantitative, conventional wisdom is usually not wisdom at all’.
He was brought into Bill Clinton’s team by the self-aggrandising strategist Dick Morris, who describes him with epic rudeness in his memoirs as ‘perpetually dishevelled, even sloppy in appearance, largely devoid of personality, tact or charm’. This was certainly not my own experience of Penn, who comes across as shy but engaging, and extremely clever. And — anyway, Dick — who’s top dog these days?
Although Microtrends is not ostensibly a manual for winning elections — ‘I won’t be able to write something like the Campbell diaries’ — it is full of clues to future Clinton strategy, and tips for others seeking power. The radicalisation of illegal migrants to America, Penn thinks, could determine the next presidential election because their grievances will encourage their legally settled relatives to register and vote. ‘The most powerful political force in [America],’ he says, ‘and the most important voting bloc in the upcoming elections, may not even be able to vote — but their cousins can. And that may make all the difference.’
As a veteran of the 2005 British general election, he has a related warning for the main political parties in this country. ‘I think the Conservatives went too hard on [immigration] in the last election because they had a consultant from Australia [Lynton Crosby]. The experience in Australia was that they could be really hard on the immigration issue. I think the experience here was quite different. People here wanted something done about the problem, they wanted modern methods brought to it. But on the other hand, they wanted it solved, not a police state.’
Another of Penn’s 75 sub-categories is ‘Impressionable Elites’, the chatterers and professionals who, he says, are so comfortable and affluent that, ironically, they are much more interested in personality, soap opera and gossip than in substantial policy debate. ‘The so-called herd in America is better educated and more issue-focused than ever,’ he says. ‘Today’s elites are like perpetual college students, far removed from the experiences and struggles shaping everyday American life. And so it is a lot easier to spin America’s elites than it is to spin the voters.’
This subverts one of the core assumptions about politics since the end of the Cold War, namely that personality, performance an
d the megawatt smile are the keys to winning power. We supposedly vote for those we would like to be friends with. Nonsense, says Penn. ‘I think “buddy potential” is way overrated. It’s not who you want to have a beer with, it’s who you want to have as president or prime minister. Again, the Margaret Thatcher experience here showed pretty clearly how the Conservative party did so much better with strength and leadership. I think in the US people realise increasingly that running for president is not an American Idol-like contest, especially with the war and the global economy.’ For which read: Barack Obama may have stormed on to the scene as a darling of the gullible elites — ‘I think he has a number of issues that are related around experience’ — but the electorate care about issues and will end up voting for Hillary.
On the eve of Labour’s conference, Penn says that Gordon Brown’s impact as PM and his defiance of expectations has been an object lesson in how ‘Impressionable Elites’ misread the public’s true preoccupations. ‘He is seen as more of a champion of things [the voters] are really interested in,’ the pollster continues — with the corollary that, in Penn’s view, David Cameron has made a strategic error in investing so heavily in ‘buddy potential’.
What links Gordon and Hillary, he suggests, is that you need to have been round the block a few times to be a true change-maker. A fresh face is not to be confused with a guarantee of innovation. It is the most fabulously cheeky political maxim: to bring about the new, it helps to be old.
‘What we have tried to do is make sure people understand that you need experience to bring about change. You have got the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and we have got two Houses in Congress. There is no magic end run to the systems that exists, you have to be able to work efficiently in them. Senator Clinton pointed out that presidents like Lyndon Johnson got Medicare and Franklin Roosevelt got Social Security — getting something big like universal healthcare in America is going to take that kind of experience.’ Gordon could not have put it better himself.
So what about this time? Will Penn be helping Labour try to win a fourth term? The PM’s friendship with another US pollster, Bob Shrum, is well-known, and Shrum is expected to play a significant role in the general election. But does Penn keep in touch with his fellow warriors from the 2005 campaign?
‘I do, but not on this trip.’ He reconsiders. ‘Actually, I have a dinner tonight, and there may be some there.’
A-ha. So: has he been chatting with Gordon’s gang about what help he might give next time round? Penn pauses and answers with a cryptic smile: ‘Things have been going well so far.’ For once, this garrulous sage keeps his analysis to himself.
Mark Penn will be talking about Microtrends, chaired by Matthew d’Ancona, on Thursday 4 October, 6:30-8:00 p.m., The Ideas Space, Policy Exchange, Clutha House, 10 Storey’s Gate, London SW1P 3AY. Tickets £10. Tel: 020 7636 1577.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 22, 2007