The Pollster Getting Under Democrats’ Skin

The Pollster Getting Under Democrats’ Skin

One of the biggest threats to Joe Biden’s reelection is a third party candidate — viable or not.

It wouldn’t take much for a third party or independent contender to tip the election in Donald Trump’s favor. In 2020, the presidency was decided by less than 40,000 votes in three swing states. And in 2024, third party fever seems to be on the rise. Already, Cornel West, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Jill Stein are running.

Then there’s the quixotic movement known as No Labels, which has cited a stream of polling data arguing that a large majority of Americans are crying out for an alternative to Trump and Biden.

The man producing those polls is Mark Penn, best known for two things: his devotion to centrist politics and his longtime role as the top pollster and strategist for Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Penn’s wife Nancy Jacobson runs No Labels and frequently uses Penn’s data to support her project, though he says he has no role in the organization. Penn reports that 64 percent of voters say “the country needs another choice” if it’s a Biden-Trump rematch and that most voters would consider a moderate, independent candidate as an alternative to the current president and former president.

Not surprisingly, the couple’s work has infuriated Democrats — who are spending money to discredit them, sue No Labels, thwart the group’s voter registration efforts and pressure its affiliates.

So what does Mark Penn think about all of this? We decided to ask him.

I caught up with Penn on this week’s Playbook Deep Dive podcast. We talked about his controversial polls, his real relationship with No Labels and why he thinks that Nikki Haley may still have a big role to play in this year’s election.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

You have been very, very bullish on the demand for a third party out there, and a lot of people disagree with you on this one. But make the case: What have you learned in your polling recently about whether the electorate is screaming out for a third-party option?

I had a question that I did maybe a year and a half ago: If it’s Biden vs. Trump, would you consider a moderate independent? Now, I know that question. I did John Anderson’s polling [in 1980], if you remember him. I did Ross Perot’s polling — his benchmark [ahead of 1992] — his very first poll. There was maybe 30, 35 percent who were really interested and could go for a third party. He got up to 39 percent in June [1992], right before he pulled out.

But I look at the conditions today, and about 60 percent say they would consider a moderate independent. Two-thirds are unhappy with the economy, half say their life is getting worse, 70 percent say they don’t like the choice that they have. So is there an opportunity? Certainly there’s an opportunity, whether or not the right person comes up and does it.

But third parties, when they come along, attract attention because they are addressing an issue that the two major parties are ignoring. Then, usually, the two parties kind of realize they’ve ignored something and co-opt that issue, and the third party dies. What is the issue that a third party could actually run on that Trump and Biden aren’t addressing?

The very issue of national unity and solving problems like immigration. Comprehensive immigration reform has been favored by 65 or 70 percent of the population for the last 10 years.

Most issues have solutions that, in the current polarized environment, aren’t getting implemented. The opening here would be for a third party to come in and say: “Look, we’re going to actually fix the problems because we’re going to be divorced from the partisanship that the Republicans and Democrats have just dug themselves into.” Never forget that Abraham Lincoln was, in effect, a third-party [candidate], one with 39 percent [of the vote in 1860].

There’s an entity called No Labels that seems to want to be the vessel for this third-party movement. And all of their presentations cite your surveys. So tell us a little bit about No Labels, and your involvement or non-involvement in that.

Well, let’s just be very clear: My wife, Nancy Jacobson, founded No Labels when I was busy with the Hillary campaign. She runs it and makes the decisions. I have no formal or informal role other than that I occasionally look at some polling and I support my wife.

And she tries to make clear that she’s just getting ballot access [for a potential ticket] — she’s just creating an opportunity if somebody were to come along and be the right person. I can assure you: She’s not someone who ever would even consider voting for Trump. Somehow, the Democrats don’t fully understand that fact. I have a very full-time job at the moment running a company that’s got 12,000 people. People don’t quite realize that I left all this behind having spent about 30 years in the trenches.

I’ve got to push you on this a little bit. Larry Hogan, in the fall, was at this event at the Hay-Adams hotel in Washington. He said, “Mark and Nancy came to talk to me about their big third-party idea.” So I feel like you’ve got to take a little bit of responsibility, if you have some of these candidates running out there, using your name.

I’m surprised. I maybe spoke to him, in my entire life, once for 10 minutes. I didn’t catch that. But I can assure you that my wife really is running this effort. And I am off running a company that I delight in.

Fair enough. Who else do you think is on the list for No Labels?

You’re going to have to ask Nancy. I don’t know whether there’s going to be a person who emerges. Who would have thought Ross Perot? [Jacobson told POLITICO last year that the group hadn’t formally identified potential recruits but that it would choose someone in the mold of Perot.]

A lot of Democrats, as you know, are very mad at you guys about this.

And I always say that what they should have done is just have a steak with her, and they’d realize what a mistake they’ve made and how much time they have wasted barking up the wrong tree.

She’s approached this thing in a very sensible way, and she has no intention whatsoever of being a spoiler in any concept, in any concept. That’s a very important value to her. I think they’ve wasted a lot of effort by not just sitting down with her and understanding that.

If I am a voter who doesn’t want to elect Donald Trump, but I also don’t like Biden, what’s the analysis I can do — with No Labels or any third-party candidate — to make sure that I’m not supporting a spoiler that’s going to elect Trump?

The first thing I’d say is go out, find out what your candidate is doing. Encourage them to take the center of the country so that in fact, there’s no room for anybody else. If Trump doesn’t get the center, he’s going to lose. If Biden doesn’t get the center, he’s going to lose. That’s the most important thing for both sides, and that closes the window for anybody coming in here. If people would stop pandering to the bases and move to the center, that of course, is the single most important thing.

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Let’s talk about what just happened in New Hampshire with Haley and Trump. What did we learn Tuesday night about the Republican race?

Haley had a credible candidacy, really drawing from the independent voters. We knew that the real feature of the primary was that there wasn’t going to be much of a contest on the Democratic side, so there’d be a healthy population of independent voters that would give her a chance. But we really learned that Donald Trump has a commanding hold on the Republican base, getting 70, 75 percent of registered Republicans in New Hampshire.

Now, most people don’t realize that there are 23 states that take independent voters in the Republican primary, which is why the most conservative candidate actually typically doesn’t win. But Donald Trump now is the conservative candidate of the Republican base. Nikki Haley is the independent candidate, drawing primarily from what would be general election swing voters or softer Republicans. And there were not enough of them to put her over the top in New Hampshire.

If you’re only winning 25 percent of Republicans, does that data on Tuesday night mean that she’s got no path, even in those remaining states that take independent voters in the GOP primary?

Well, you always have a path if you change voters’ minds. But if she can’t get more than 25 percent of the Republican base, practically speaking, she’s going to lose and she’ll probably get really murdered in the caucuses. Structurally, unless she has some kind of game-changer, she’s likely to lose.

Now does that mean you should get out of the race? Almost anything can happen in politics. Why not run it out ’til at least Super Tuesday, and see what happens? With Donald Trump, you never know. As I always say, it’s Trump against Trump. Right now, Trump is a much better Trump than I’ve ever seen. [On Tuesday night,] he actually shared the podium with other people who he’d previously opposed. That was not the old Donald Trump.

I agree with you in a couple of cases — the victory speech in Iowa, the town hall with Fox in Iowa — but I did not see that Trump on Tuesday, despite giving the mic to Vivek Ramaswamy to just torch Haley a bit. He’s still Trump. If you tick him off, his entire political strategy goes out the window and he talks about Haley the whole time instead of ignoring her and — correct me if I’m wrong — that is the obvious strategy after he wins such a commanding victory.

Yes. That’s right. There was new Trump for like three-quarters of it. And then old Trump came out in the end. I don’t think old Trump is buried, but he’s contained a lot more generally — which is why he’s doing better, frankly, than he ever has.

I mean, the scene of him consolidating all of his opponents was remarkable. In 2016, the only people he had were his family. There was literally nobody who would stand on a podium with the guy. Now, he’s got 91 indictments and everybody is standing with him. It’s really incredible.

I thought Nikki Haley’s presence was strong, but her message was really weak. Her message was just: Trump’s a loser, and I’ll take you to win. That’s not an uplifting message. She had a moment there that I thought she could have capitalized on a vision for the country. And instead, she failed to take that moment.

Let’s talk about Biden. What did we learn, if anything, from the results?

Well, as I keep saying, Biden is the nominee. The Democratic Party is more coalesced around Biden than the Republican Party is coalesced around Trump. Of course, there are doubts about him. Of course, he’s got an age issue. And of course, he doesn’t have the best job ratings. But Democrats are not saying, “I want an alternative.” They are actually lining up behind Biden.

I think the fact that they did that last minute write-in campaign was effective, and it forestalled what could have been really embarrassing if they didn’t participate and Dean Phillips got a whole bunch of votes. It was a smart move in the end. And it underscored that even as a write-in, he’s a winner with Democrats.

I don’t think that’s the conventional wisdom — that Biden has a firmer grasp over the Democratic Party than Trump has over the Republican Party. You hear people quite often make the opposite case, and you’re saying that’s not true.

Yeah. And then I’m wondering why Republicans all the time are picking on Biden and trying to make it true that Democrats should get rid of him. Democrats are not getting rid of him. And I don’t know why the Republicans want Democrats to get rid of him. None of it makes any sense to me. Then they have this theory, “Oh yeah, but when you get to the [Democratic] convention, they’re going to put somebody else in.” All the delegates are going to be Biden-selected delegates. They’re not going anywhere.

There was something interesting in the New Hampshire exit polls. It showed like 10 percent on the Democratic side said they won’t vote for Biden, no matter what, if he’s the nominee. But then it was in the 30s among Republican primary voters who said they wouldn’t vote for Trump. What do you make of that?

I think that Trump has a real problem here. Somehow, it’s not as reflected in the overall horse race [polls] — because even in my latest Harvard CAPS/Harris poll, I had Trump by like 7 points [over Biden]. But he’s only at like 47 percent. He’s not getting 50.

Trump has a problem, which is the Nikki Haley voters. The Nikki Haley voters — a large percentage of them — are Never Trump. Will they, in the end, cave to Trump, or does Trump have a way of consolidating them? It seems to me that Trump almost has to pick her as vice president. As a practical matter, she has all of the votes he needs to win. Nobody else will have put those votes or that coalition together.

On the Democratic side, that’s just not really the case. Democrats held together despite Biden’s ratings in the midterms. And they’re relatively holding together: Only 10 percent won’t vote for Biden [if he’s the nominee], but 30 percent of these voters on the other side won’t vote for Trump. It seems like Trump has a bigger problem than Biden does in that respect.

That would be a case for Nikki Haley to stay in a little bit longer.

If she is willing to be Trump’s vice president. If she doesn’t want to be Trump’s vice president, she should drop. But if she wants to forge a coalition that might be useful in the future — and, at the end of the day, she’s willing to accept that — Trump will have to go kicking and screaming … But Trump has no choice. He could do her, or he could do Tim Scott.

What about Tim Scott? The Nikki Haley voter doesn’t strike me as an enthusiastic Haley voter; it’s just a placeholder for not being Trump. So you could sort of swap out Haley with Scott.

But I think that she’ll have more sway with suburban women. Suburban women classically vote a lot more Republican than people realize. But in the Trump case, they’re really queasy about him. The reason why she would be such a great general election candidate for the Republicans is essentially just that she would get that women’s Republican vote in the suburbs overwhelmingly. And that would be the end of the election.

I want to talk a little bit about Trump. I wonder if you have thoughts about what he did right in 2016, what he did wrong in 2020, or the differences between those campaigns and what he might learn from in 2024.

I thought it was night and day. In 2016, he staked out a number of clear issues — immigration, trade, crime. To some extent, he flipped Democratic issues around. And he took working-class constituencies as a result of flipping those issues.

In 2020, he had no new issues, no new agenda. He was flailing all over the place. It was a terrible campaign. He was lucky to get as many votes as he got in 2020. His debate performances were kind of bizarre.

What he’s doing so far has surprised me. He’s got higher numbers than he had before. He’s got a 48 percent favorable. He’s got a better organization, it seems to me, than he had before. He’s a lot more formidable.

We had David Axelrod on the podcast recently and heard his whole critique of the Biden operation. What’s your critique of what they’ve done so far in terms of general election strategy?

I was very unhappy with what they did during the summer because it’s really a good time to put a fresh face on what you’re doing, get around the country, stake out some issues. And instead, he was on the beach, kind of half-clothed the entire time. I thought the summer was a disaster. And by the time everybody got back on Labor Day, his numbers really started to tank. The summer was wasted.

I think now their strategy is: We’re losing the top issues, so we’re going to draw the line with Trump and we’re going to make the campaign about Trump and not us. And we’re going to say: “Do you want Trump or do you want four more years of reasonable Democratic rule?” I don’t think that’s a bad strategic choice. I’d always like to see more issues, more agenda, more clarity. I think politics in general is just too negative. But as a strategy now, hey, it worked twice. They’re hitting that strategy hard.

I do think they have to deal with the age issue. You can’t make him younger, but you’ve got to find a format that works for him that is comfortable. We found the town hall format for Hillary was where she was able to shine. She wasn’t the best stump speech speaker, but she was great in an interactive town hall setting. They’ve got to look for that. He’s a highly personable guy — that was really one of his core attributes. People want to think, “Look, he may be old, but he’s a decent guy at the end of the day who’s going to make good decisions for the country.”

On Trump, what we didn’t talk about are the prosecutions, the indictments. I know you’ve dug into that and come up with some surprising conclusions. Lay out the real political risks that you found there.

I was thinking about how to formulate questions, and so I said: “Suppose he’s convicted in the classified documents case, who would you vote for?” And what I found out is they don’t care about the documents. So I said: “What if he’s convicted in Georgia?” They care somewhat about that. And then I said: “Well, what if he’s convicted in the January 6th case of having helped foment the riot?” Then Biden won. So it really said to me, OK, the case that Jack Smith wants to prosecute, that’s the dangerous case.

Now, that presupposes that he connects Trump to the actual violence, but if you do that and you do that legally and a jury convicts him, at that point, Biden won. He didn’t win overwhelmingly — he won by 4. But it did move the race 10 points basically.

On the flip side, if they do actually have a trial before Election Day — which is obviously very much up in the air — if he’s not convicted, that’s going to be a huge boost. And he will perhaps be better off than having not been indicted at all.

That’s some high stakes politics. Yes. Absolutely. I don’t think there’s any question: If he was actually acquitted by a jury on that, close to the election, that would give him a tremendous boost.

In your last poll, immigration has emerged as a top-tier issue. I think I heard you say recently that it’s the first time that you can remember, in your polling, it rising to this level? Give us a sense of how important immigration is right now, according to the surveys you’ve done.

So we ask voters: Name your top three issues. And for the very first time, in this month’s Harvard CAPS/Harris poll, immigration came up as the number one issue in the country. That just has never been the case. There was once a time when crime was the most important issue, maybe in the 80s, early 90s. Never was there a time that I can recall when immigration was number one, displacing the economy.

I always had an interesting question: How many people do you think are coming across the border every month? And most people would say, like, 10,000. The more they learned the facts — that it was hundreds of thousands, right — the more this was going to explode as an issue if left unaddressed. And look, the best thing going for Trump, at the moment, is that the number one issue is immigration.

What are the implications for Biden and his current negotiations with Congress?

Oh, the politics are: Make a deal, pretend that you’re dragged kicking and screaming, and do your best to take the issue off the table. You try to move your issues forward: climate change, racial equality, abortion rights. You move those forward, and when you’re playing defense on the Republican issues, you have to take them off the table.

This was essentially the 1996 reelection strategy for Bill Clinton with welfare reform.

Well, yes. But I would say that I deployed that strategy probably 20 times back in the day. It was the same strategy I had with Tony Blair: The conservatives had immigration, and we had to take it off the table. Once we got it off the table, then we’d win on all the other issues.

I don’t think [Biden] can take immigration off the table. He waited too long for that. But he’s got to neutralize it in some way, because of its intensity — once it got to the major cities and once the mayors started to complain, and once taxpayers realized that there was an enormous bill that would go to citizens other than those who just live in Texas, this thing exploded.

Just as a practical matter, he’s running for reelection. He can’t have his lowest rating on the number one issue. I won’t call it “fatal,” but let’s call that “super difficult.”

Listen to this episode of Playbook Deep Dive on Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

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