By Ben Smith
As President Barack Obama works to sell the American people on a sweeping agenda of domestic spending and policy changes, he’s relying on three men who have gone through neither Senate confirmation nor cable news spin cycles.
Data from pollsters Joel Benenson and Paul Harstad has become increasingly important to shaping the White House’s message as the crucial battle over the president’s budget intensifies.
“The pace [of polling] is picking up,” said one source familiar with the data.
In addition, David Binder, a San Francisco-based focus group expert, also has been traveling the country taking the national temperature on issues like energy and health care, others close to the White House said.
Presidents have long pooh-poohed polls while privately conducting them. Jimmy Carter had Patrick Caddell, Reagan had Dick Wirthlin, and Bill Clinton relied on Mark Penn for weekly, personal briefings on the numbers.
George W. Bush, reacting against Clinton’s perceived reliance on polls, sharply cut back the practice, according to spending tallies. His main pollster was the no-profile Jan van Lohuizen, but Karl Rove still conducted six major surveys a year, a senior Bush White House staffer said, and employed an aide to pore over the growing pile of publicly available data.
Obama, too, has denounced polling, promising in one high-profile Iowa speech to lead “not by polls, but by principle,” even though he employed six campaign pollsters.
A political aide, Larry Grisolano, confirmed the outlines of the White House polling operation, which is paid for through the Democratic National Committee.
“Harstad and Benenson poll for the DNC, which shares data with some folks in the admin[istration], as has been the practice in past administrations,” he said in an email.
Obama, early indications suggest, combines elements of the Clinton and Bush models. He is polling more than Bush – a bit less than once a week for most of his young term, two people involved said.
Elements of Obama’s approach bear the hallmarks of message testing, like the introduction of the words “recovery” and “reinvestment” to rebrand the “stimulus” package, and aides said the polling has focused almost entirely on selling policy, not on measuring the president’s personal appeal.
A source familiar with the data said a central insight of more recent polling had been that Americans see no distinction between the budget and the popular spending measures that preceded it, and that the key to selling the budget has been to portray it as part of the “recovery” measures.
But Obama, though polling regularly, is no Clinton either. The 42nd president studied Penn’s polls with “hypnotic intensity,” the Washington Post once wrote. Obama leaves political guru David Axelrod to sift through the results.
Indeed, the polling arrangement offers a glimpse into the power dynamics of the Obama White House. Axelrod convenes a Wednesday political meeting and is in regular contact with the pollsters, but the pollsters don’t brief Obama directly.
Internally, they bolster Axelrod’s power rather than challenging it.
“Axelrod digests all the polling,” said another Democrat who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House doesn’t want to call attention to its polling.
Benenson, Harstad, and Binder all worked for Obama’s campaign, and they’re all outside-the-beltway figures, with relatively low public profiles.
Harstad, based in Boulder, Colorado, specializes in Midwestern races, and has worked for Obama since his 2004 Senate bid. He polled the crucial Iowa caucuses.
“Barack Obama has been a client since 2002 and I continue to advise the White House when called upon,” he said in a brief telephone interview, noting that his client is formally the Democratic National Committee.
Binder, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, has a wide corporate practice. Based in San Francisco, his political work has largely been in California, where clients include mayors Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa.
Benenson, who also declined to discuss his work for Obama, emerged on the campaign as the highest profile of the pollsters, and the one with the most direct access to Obama. Having polled the disastrous New Hampshire primary during the first campaign cycle, he became in the general election a first among equals, in part because of his relationships with Axelrod and Obama.
“It became clear over the course of the campaign that there needed to be one person who knew the polling inside and out who’d be able to brief Barack and be able to be a part of debate prep, and that was Joel,” said another former campaign adviser.
A bearded, combative former newspaper reporter, Benenson and Axelrod, also an ex-journalist, have a warm rapport-- one former aide described them as a “vaudeville act” together. And Benenson has an unusual resume: Before becoming a reporter for the New York Daily News, he was a beer distributor. Politico's Roger Simon described him, amid the chaotic 1977 New York blackout, seated in front of his shop with a 12-gauge shotgun. He jumped from the Daily News to New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s 1994 reelection campaign, then went to work for Penn on Clinton’s 1996 race.
Cuomo recalled him as bringing a dour view of politics and politicians. “I hope his experience with us changed his view of politics a little and made it a little more hospitable to politics,” he said.
Benenson’s broad practice has included everything from the campaign of New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez to Procter & Gamble’s launch of the fat substitute Olestra.
On the campaign, other former staffers say, Benenson was an early voice against two pieces of conventional wisdom: The notion that experience would be a meaningful issue in the contest between Obama and Clinton; and the idea that John McCain brought a well-defined brand to the contest. Instead, Obama shifted the primary to the terrain of change, and defined McCain early on as the lobbyist-dominated heir to George W. Bush.
Burned by the New Hampshire experience, and neurotic by nature, Benenson kept polling in the last few days of the general election on his own tab, even after campaign manager David Plouffe had ended spending on polling as no longer useful.
Benenson was in London during the President’s trip this week, a colleague said, noting that he has another major client there. In another return to Clinton-era tradition, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently hired the White House pollster.