By Peter Goodspeed
When he was a young businessman, running a beer distributorship in Brooklyn, Joel Benenson learned to meet a budget, drive a forklift and once used a shotgun to protect his investment. During the New York power blackout of 1977, he found himself guarding his darkened storefront from potential looters with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Now, the 56-year-old New York-based pollster and political strategist rides shotgun for Barack Obama, the U. S. President, one of the small core of top advisors who help shape and fine-tune messages emanating from the White House.
Having served as Mr. Obama's chief pollster during the primaries and last year's presidential election, Mr. Benenson continues to meet the President's top advisors weekly and do crucial polling for the Democratic National Committee.
When he speaks in Toronto on Monday at an Economic Club of Canada luncheon, he may try to explain the apparent contradiction involved in being the chief pollster for a President who promised to lead "not by polls but by principle."
The former newspaper reporter, who worked briefly as communications director for Mario Cuomo, then New York governor, insists Mr. Obama lives up to his own billing.
"I have never worked for a candidate who asked less about polls," he says. "It's absolutely true, he does govern by principle. There are countless examples where he knows he is going against trends on some issues."
"Polls don't tell you what position to take," he adds. "You tell your pollster, 'Here is my position; here are my arguments for it,' and then you use the polling to help understand what is your most persuasive argument."
This is the best use of polling, he emphasizes.
"It is not just to do a snapshot and say what people think. The key is understanding the underlying attitudes that people are bringing to the table. That helps your messaging. It can help you understand what kind of messaging is going to be most persuasive to them."
According to Mr. Benenson, polling is most useful when it helps politicians find the right language to explain what they already believe, in addition to targeting the opposition's vulnerabilities.
His firm, Benenson Strategy Group, was recently hired by Britain's troubled Labour Party to fine tune Prime Minister Gordon Brown's political messages before an expected general election.
So far, Mr. Benenson hasn't had any Canadian political clients, but in the late 1990s, when he was vice-president of polling for another firm, he worked on a Humane Society of the United States campaign aimed at ending Canada's annual seal hunt.
That poll asked Americans: "How likely would you be to take a vacation to Canada, if you knew that portions of your tourist money would go to support the practice of seal clubbing?"
Sixty-five per cent said it was unlikely.