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Does Clinton’s Guru Know All?

Mark Penn has helped Hillary build a commanding lead in national polls—but she may have an Achilles’ heel.

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Illustration by Darrow

Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, knows as well as anyone that a lot could change before the first votes are cast in the 2008 election—yet still he can’t resist a bit of gloating about the current standing of his client. “We’ve come a long way in the past six months,” he tells me one afternoon in his office in Washington. “People looked at her and said she was starting at the top; there was nowhere to go but down. And it’s just turned out to be false.”

A pollster by vocation, Penn is addicted to numbers—and he has plenty at hand to buttress his optimism about Clinton. “She started out seven or eight points behind McCain,” he notes. “Now, McCain has collapsed and she’s a good six points ahead of Giuliani.” As for the Democratic nomination, Clinton holds a lead of roughly twenty points over Barack Obama and is running ahead of both Obama and John Edwards (slightly) in Iowa and (vastly) in New Hampshire. “Let’s just say,” Penn concludes with a low chuckle, “I had a much more enjoyable Labor Day weekend than anybody ever expected.”

Penn’s enjoyment has been furthered by more than Clinton’s position in the polls. The night before we met, he’d been fêted at the Corcoran Gallery by an A-list assemblage for the publication of his new book, Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes. The tome, which at more than 400 pages is anything but micro, offers reams of data and anecdotal evidence in support of a thesis—“the niching of America”—that he’s been developing for more or less his entire professional life. It also provides some clues about the critical demographic groups (think Protestant Hispanics and aging soccer moms) that Penn is eyeing for Clinton’s general-election campaign.

As Penn points out, the likelihood that he’ll have a chance to undertake that task has increased considerably since the start of the year. The conventional explanation for this centers on the failure of Obama or Edwards to capitalize on the front-runner’s many weaknesses. Yet equally, if not more, important has been the campaign devised by Penn and executed by Clinton’s team—a campaign that so far has been nearly flawless but that might prove more problematic in the end than the Clintonites now imagine.

That Penn is capable of strategic brilliance has never been in much dispute. In a thirty-year career in polling on behalf of clients ranging from Ed Koch to Tony Blair—along with corporations such as Microsoft and Texaco—he has established a reputation as one of the smartest cookies in the business. As Bill Clinton’s numbers guy in 1996, Penn was behind the relentless targeting of suburban women and the small-bore issues, from V-chips to school uniforms, designed to appeal to them. In Hillary’s first Senate race in 2000, it was he who encouraged her to eschew a grand vision in favor of the kind of pothole-ism that was Al D’Amato’s métier.

Penn’s effectiveness and unswerving loyalty earned him the abiding trust of both Clintons. But among his fellow operatives, his control-freakishness and paucity of social skills have kept him from being the most popular kid in class. (In the Clinton White House, the rumpled Penn was derided behind his back as “Schlumpy” or “Schlumbo.”) More to the point, before this year, there was doubt in many quarters as to how his narrow-gauge, slice-and-dice, ultracautious approach would fare on the treacherous ideological terrain of a Democratic primary. The only such contest on his résumé was Joe Lieberman 2004. QED.

Thus did the entry of Obama in the race pose a formidable challenge for Penn and his client. Here was a candidate with rhetorical and inspirational skills she manifestly did (and does) not possess, and who turned out to be, astonishingly, as proficient as she was at fund-raising. A candidate who seemed to embody transformational potential at a time when voters appeared to yearn for change above all. A candidate, unlike Clinton, who had opposed George W. Bush’s misadventure in Iraq from the get-go.

But Penn believed that Obama was vulnerable on several counts. Most glaring, of course, was his lack of experience. (An operative for another Democratic candidate tells me that a whopping 40 percent of voters cite this factor when asked by his campaign’s pollsters to name their main doubt about Obama—“although,” he cautions, “what some of them really mean is, he’s black.”) So Clinton has run as a quasi- incumbent, her torso scored with the battle scars of the nineties, pounding Obama over his “irresponsible and frankly naïve” willingness to meet with foreign dictators. Obama, in turn, has let loose with thinly veiled attacks on “those who tout their experience working the system in Washington”—a critique that Penn finds comical. “Now Obama is dissing being a senator? That means he’s running on being a state senator,” Penn remarks. “I don’t know that Springfield, Illinois, is such a great place compared to Washington!”


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