Alex Massie

Pollsters Go To War

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I sometimes wonder about pollsters and political consultants. That is, I wonder if they are rather like the financial Masters of the Universe whose mastery turns out, it seems, to have been somewhat exaggerated.

That's not say there aren't differences between well-run campaigns (Barack Obama) and lousy, ill-focused, foolish ones (Hillary Clinton), rather that the benefits of good political advice aren't nearly so great as the damage caused by poor advice and ill-conceived strategy.

Hindsight is always useful, of course, but imagine how different the race for the Democratic party's presidential nomination might have been had the Clinton campaign remembered that it might be useful to compete seriously in caucus states. (Of course, they didn't think this would matter: but that's the point - there was no Plan B, no-one considering the question "What do we do if this doesn't work?" There was, then, a tactical and a strategic failure.)

All this was brought to mind by the latest episode in the long-running rivalry between Democratic pollsters Stan Greenberg and Mark Penn. This time they are feuding in Britain and, specifically, arguing about the 2005 general election.

Greenberg had been working closely with the Labour party until 2004 when, much to his irritation, Penn's firm was brought in to be the main pollster. In his new book Greenberg complains that Penn's polls were "rigged", a charge Penn does not take lying down. The details of cross-tabs and the like need not detain us; more interesting is Penn's view of how he did his job:

"The facts are simple and straightforward - PSB was brought in at a low point when Blair believed the race was likely lost and he decided a new team, new path and message were needed to turn it around.  We replaced Stan as the pollster for the prime minister while he continued to do limited work for Brown and the party. We did in fact change the course of the campaign, developed a new message, a new set of targets, were extremely accurate, and received extensive written and personal praise from the prime minister."

Penn was brought on board in the summer of 2004 and was the lead pollster for at least the last six months of the campaign (with Philip Gould in the unenviable position of having to manage the feuding American pollsters).

Penn's "new message" was, it seems, the startlingly perceptive decision to talk a lot about the economy which was, you'll recall, still ticking along nicely in those days. If this was a "new path" then it was one that could surely have been recommended by any moderately-engaged teenager. After all, that whole War in Iraq thing wasn't going too well, was it?

In a sense, I suppose, you could say that Blair's achievement in securing a third term despite the unpopularity of the war was impressive. But that rather forgets - as Penn, conveniently does too - the fact that the opposition had been just as much in favour of the war as had the government. That limited the options for an electorate scunnered on the war. (Three years later, of course, Hillary Clinton would be defeated at least in part because she faced an opponent who had been against the war and none of Mr Penn's strategic genius ever produced a means of saving Mrs Clinton from the consequences of that reality.)

This "new message" also took the view that it was very important to target women voters and especially women with children. This too seems worth the big bucks, given the difficulty any candidate might face if he didn't consider the consequences of ignoring half the electorate.

Penn presents the election as a major triumph and is careful not to let anyone have the impression that Blair's third term owed anything to anyone other than him. After all, it was his "message" and "path" wot won it, right?

But of course, the Tories were led by Michael Howard - a man most famous for refusing to answer a question 14 times and for being criticised, by a former government colleague, for having "something of the night" about him. A reasonable person might conclude that Blair vs Howard was like Tyson vs Bruno. Not a fair fight.

And indeed, for most of the year prior to the election no more than one in four voters told IpsosMORI that they were satisfied with Howard's performance. True, Blair often had higher negatives than Howard, but there was rarely, if ever, a sense that Howard was a credible Prime Minister in waiting. In June 2004 MORI gave Labour a three point lead; by November that had been extended to four points before creeping up to a 38-33 lead in MORI's final pre-election poll. By that stage 40% of voters thought Blair would make the best PM, while only 21% said the same of Howard. Doubtless that had something to do with Labour's campaign, but it also seems pretty clear that substantial numbers of voters - including many Tory voters - were never especially enthused by Howard.

In the end, of course, Labour won by three points. This rather suggests that allowing for occasional ups and downs the essential nature of the race remained more or less unchanged for more than a year. Perhaps matters would have unfolded otherwise, had not all the brilliant tacticians and strategists and consultants had their way, but it's not immediately clear that, despite it all, they had any enormous impact on anything at all.

None of this matters to bold Mr Penn:

"The frame of the campaign was 'forward not back', a line devised by me and speaking entirely to the need to focus on the future. That Blair had modernized the country, the government and the economy - and we had to keep on that path -- was the central thrust of the campaign."

Can I suggest that anyone suggesting that the line "forward not back*" is a brilliant political slogan runs the risk of damaging, not enhancing their reputation? At the very least they run the risk of leaving people thinking that this political strategy game is not much more than lots of money for pretty tatty old rope...

*It also wasn't even original. In a 1996 episode of The Simpsons, Kang, an extra-terrestial, ran for the Presidency on the slogan "We must move forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom."

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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