By Josh Margolin
WASHINGTON -- The mission was to find the best, it didn't matter where.
So Barack Obama's senior strategist criss-crossed the country, meeting up with political operatives, scouting prospects, staffing the top rungs of a presidential campaign that, by most accounts, had no earthly chance of success.
Along the way, David Axelrod paid a call on pollster Joel Benenson. The Manhattan-based consultant who lives in Montclair is best known in New Jersey for helping steer Jim McGreevey to the governor's mansion and Bob Menendez to a full term in the U.S. Senate.
Bearded, brash, impossible to ignore, eager to argue, quick with a four-letter word, Benenson was anything but the conventional choice.
"Obama's not from Central Casting either. The whole campaign was something that broke the mold," Axelrod said. "Joel was the first guy I thought of because there are a lot of great pollsters in Washington, but we were building a campaign that was from the outside. Joel is much more Jersey than Washington."
During the next two years, Benenson and Obama built a bond through hours of rigorous debate-prep sessions and strategy conferences focused on polling data and public opinion and how they could use it to shape their campaign. Benenson's job was to figure out through telephone surveys what voters felt, which issues they thought were important, and what type of person they most wanted in the White House. The experts say it's just as hard as it sounds.
Among Benenson's contributions, Axelrod said, was helping to craft the ultimately successful response to Hillary Clinton's argu ment that her "experience" made her the better Democrat in the race.
"Joel was absolutely persuaded that, in a year of change, that 'experience' was a surrogate for 'insider' and Obama's message was outside. He's incisive," Axelrod said. "When you hear 'experience,'" Benenson explained, "that's all about résumé. And Obama didn't have the résumé. But we knew long before that 'steady in a crisis' was much more important than 'experience.' When you watched the presidential campaign, you saw that Obama was the one who happened to be steady. ... He demonstrated aspects of his character people were hungry for."
It sounds much easier than it was at the time, Benenson admitted.
"We had constant pressure to respond to the 'experience' question. There were always people, outsiders, donors, reporters asking about it. When people look back now, they're remarking on how consistently we drove our message, but we had to keep everybody strong on the theme."
Benenson remains a top political counselor to the president. He continues polling for the president, albeit through the Democratic National Committee, and is a member of the core group of political advisers that meets with Axelrod in Washington each week to talk over politics, polling and whether the president is getting his message across to the American people.
THE WORD IS OUT
Benenson is also being sought after by politicians around the country, and even across the Atlantic.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm Joe DiMaggio," Benenson said. "It's going to be hard to top. I don't know what to do for an encore."
For starters, Benenson has signed on with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He's also re turning to a long list of clients at his Benenson Strategy Group. Among those on his roster are Newark Mayor Cory Booker, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe.
"There's an unreality to it all," said Benenson. "It was a great campaign and then you kind of take a step back and there's this unreal quality where you go 'Wow!' It hits you at odd moments."
Working with Obama was an echo of 15 years ago for Benenson, who left political reporting to run the communications department on Mario Cuomo's 1994 re-election campaign.
"There are a lot of similarities to Cuomo," Benenson said of Obama, who, like the iconic liberal Democrat, is an attorney and a politician renowned for his intellect and oratorical skill. "I've been very fortunate to work for a couple of giants."
It was during the '94 campaign that Benenson and Axelrod, also a former newspaper reporter, first worked together. "We're both from New York. We're both smartasses," Axelrod said.
Cuomo said he wanted Benenson on the team because "Joel was a tough guy, strong-willed. Joel's candor is a valuable asset."
Also, Cuomo said, Benenson "was experienced with life, he was a businessman; he wasn't some kid." And that has proven invaluable since Benenson began working as a pollster a decade ago, Benenson said.
THE FACTS THAT FIGURE
Part math and part psychology, polling requires understanding of statistics and the skill of seeing broader themes at work behind the numbers. As a pollster, Benenson first has to craft the questions to be asked and then pore over the results to learn what they mean.
Like the "experience" question, Benenson said. The numbers said people thought Clinton had experience, but it didn't matter, he decided, because that wasn't the most important quality in a candidate.
Still, Benenson is no prophet and his numbers can be flawed. In fact, Obama still kids the pollster.
"I was the one who thought we had a shot of winning New Hampshire by double digits," Benenson said of the first primary, which Obama lost by 2 points.
Benenson said he got his feel for the way people think through an unorthodox life path. He grew up in the Queens neighborhood of Laurelton, an unremarkable enclave whose key sights are the Belt Parkway and Long Island Rail Road tracks. He earned a theater degree at Queens College, then he went into business as a co-owner of a beer wholesaler/retailer in the melting-pot Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
It was in Crown Heights, Benenson said, where he learned how to make a budget, drive a forklift, and create bonds with all people, from Hasidic Jews to Dominican immigrants to the guy who was lost and just looking to pick up a pack of cigarettes. It was also there where he learned the value of what he worked for and how to protect it. So when the 1977 blackout hit, Benenson, who had not fired a gun before, sat in the darkened strorefront with 12-gauge shotgun to fend off possible looters. None showed up.
Benenson went into the newspaper business, where he honed his questioning and analysis skills and then moved into politics. By 2000, he had opened his own firm and counted McGreevey as his first big client.
In McGreevey's early days, Benenson was dispatched to try to get reporters off the controversy over the then-governor's unqualified homeland security adviser, Golan Cipel. It was futile, and McGreevey eventually resigned because of an affair he said he'd had with Cipel.
"There was definitely some bitterness because he never apologized to anybody," Benenson said of the way he felt after McGreevey finally left office in 2004. "It left a bad taste."
Benenson also worked for then- Sen. Bob Torricelli's 2002 re-election campaign, which ended when Torricelli dropped out because of ethics questions. That campaign brought Benenson and Axelrod -- along with Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe -- together for the first time on a big race.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
By the time Benenson was working on Menendez's 2006 campaign and beginning his trip with Obama, he said he saw the push for change in his poll results.
"This thing has been brewing for years," he said. "For four or five years, the American public's been way ahead of everybody else."
For nearly two years, Benenson said he worked as much as 85 hours a week, sometimes traveling, sometimes not even making it past his breakfast table for hours, working his phone and laptop.
Benenson and his wife, a magazine editor, have a son in high school and a daughter in college. The campaign consumed so much of Benenson's life that he still sounds, six months later, as though he could use a nap. It forced him to cancel the final Yankee Stadium home game he was supposed to see with his family last October. (He was called in to help vice presidential candidate Joe Biden prep for his debate with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.)
But the one thing, Benenson said, the campaign and his work in politics hasn't consumed is his ability to still believe in the cause and the candidate -- not all of them -- but the rare ones. Like Obama.
"I'm still a hard-edged reporter," Benenson insisted. Then he confided "But I'm an optimist. I'm a perpetual optimist."