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!”
Penn also seized on the fact that the core of Obama’s support was among upscale voters, who, according to data laid out in Microtrends, tend to focus more on personality and character, whereas downscale voters are more inclined to focus on issues—and vote for the candidates they see as most effective in defending their interests. “The eggheads have become the jugheads and the jugheads have become the eggheads,” is how Penn puts it. And though eggheads dominate the media and donor class, jugheads typically determine the Democratic nominee—hence Clinton’s nods to populist economics and her campaign’s early, compelling ads promising to fight for America’s “invisibles.”
More risky, but more pivotal, has been Penn’s strategy in dealing with Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq War: not simply urging her not to apologize but painting her as the most effective anti-warrior in the race. This effort began in March, when Penn appeared at a Harvard forum with Obama’s top guru, David Axelrod, and contended, disingenuously, that Clinton’s and Obama’s records on Iraq were essentially the same. Afterward, Axelrod was livid. (He and Penn, as it happens, worked together on Clinton’s 2000 Senate race and feuded bitterly: “Hoo, boy, they hate each other,” a Clintonite involved in that campaign reports.) But in the months that followed, Obama’s campaign looked on as Clinton proceeded to blur the distinctions between herself and Obama on the war, defusing what had been her greatest liability.
With similar adroitness, Penn and his team have set about stealing the mantle of change from Obama, crafting an argument that, as Clinton put it in a recent speech, “change is just a word without the strength and experience to make it happen.”
The presence of Bill Clinton onstage behind his wife during that address was no accident. At the heart of Obama’s message is a generational appeal—“It’s time to turn the page”—that touches obliquely on a concept much discussed in Democratic circles: Clinton fatigue. Yet even back in 2000, in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, when Penn worked briefly for Al Gore, he regarded the concept as a crock. (When Gore asked Penn about Clinton fatigue, the pollster replied glibly, “I’m not tired of him—are you?” And was fired shortly thereafter.) Indeed, public polls confirm that 42 is by far the most popular Democrat within the party. And so, despite the risk that he will overshadow his wife, Bill has become a fixture on the campaign trail, speaking proudly of his record and helping Hillary gin up enthusiasm that matches Obama’s buzz.
Only a fool would conclude that it’s too late for Obama to alter the dynamic of the race and give Hillary a run for her money. But it may be that Edwards now occupies the better position to emerge as her main challenger. Though Edwards trails Clinton by an even larger margin than Obama does nationally, he is closer to her in Iowa (and even leads in some polls there), and is arguably more deeply rooted and better organized in the state than anyone. Certainly, his campaign has been the most substantive of the three. Also the most ideologically consistent and consistently ideological. And neither he nor his staff shrinks from confronting the nostalgic premise of the Clinton campaign.
“They’re not about change—they’re about changing back,” says Edwards’s deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince. I mention the incongruity of Bill Clinton, whose theme song in 1992 was “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow),” now stumping for his wife, declaring, “Yesterday’s news was pretty good.” Prince laughs and replies, “Yeah, their theme song this year should be ‘Glory Days,’ by Springsteen.”
No doubt, the potency of Clinton nostalgia within the Democratic party can’t be overstated. But in the broader electorate, Clinton fatigue may be more real than Penn is prepared to admit—a factor any savvy Republican candidate will undoubtedly try to exploit. (Indeed, a straightforwardly anti-dynastic argument, at once anti-Clinton and anti-Bush, might well have resonance with many swing voters in the general election.) And the past two weeks have provided a reminder—in the form of the metastasizing scandal around Norman Hsu, the onetime fugitive who raised nearly $900,000 for Hillary’s campaign—of the dark side of the first Clinton era. As Prince points out, Hillary has benefited mightily from the fact that all of the negative stories about her from those years were aired nationally long ago, because the press, with its aversion to “old news,” has declined to rehash them this cycle.
But the Hsu imbroglio may put those stories back in play again, opening the door to a Democrat ready to take on Hillary and her husband’s legacy with equal vigor. And Edwards just might be that Democrat. The opening for him is small: win Iowa or go home. But if he does win there, all bets are off. When I ask Penn if he worries more about Edwards or Obama, he replies, “Campaigns worry about everything all the time. They’re never smooth. Everyone has a near-death experience before it’s over.” It would be no small irony if Hillary’s was delivered by her and her spouse’s former selves.