Brainstorming in Aspen: Pollsters Pretend That Pols Don't Listen to Polls

Fortune Magazine's Brainstorm Conference 2006 has lived up to its billing -- my brain has been thoroughly stormed with great panel discussions like Our Sped-Up Youth with Chris DeWolfe from MySpace, Michael Wolf from MTV, Idit Caperton from MaMaMedia, and Christopher Sacca from Google; A Cure for Cancer with Lance Armstrong; and Capitalism Under Fire with Eddie Lampert from Sears, Robert Nardelli from Home Depot and Andy Stern from SEIU.

But, of course, it was a political panel that most stirred my juices -- if not my gray matter.

Entitled "Politics Lost" (the name of Joe Klein's new book), the panel featured Klein, David Gergen, George Bush's media adviser Mark McKinnon*, and pollster Mark Penn, whom the New Yorker described as Hillary Clinton's "chief strategist."

Klein took on pollsters and polling in general with a great story about the speech Bobby Kennedy gave the day Martin Luther King was assassinated -- a memorable speech in which he quoted Aeschylus. "That speech," he said, "would never happen now. Bobby Kennedy would have had too much polling data in his head about his audience, and some consultant would have told him to can Aeschylus."

McKinnon assured us that George Bush doesn't give a thought to polling data, provoking a collective, silent "Oh, please" from the very polite crowd. (McKinnon is now advising John McCain, who I'm sure also came to the view he expressed during his speech here that creationism should be taught in schools without giving a thought to GOP polling data.)

Then came the post-panel Q & A, during which I asked Mark Penn whether Hillary Clinton's cosponsoring a bill criminalizing flag desecration was also the product not of polling but of her deeply held convictions.

Without batting an eye, Penn said: "You guys want to make believe that you know better what her beliefs are than she does. This is her belief. This has been her belief for a long time. She's been listening to veterans in New York, and that's what she believes." After catching his breath he added: "And you know what? She doesn't care what you think!"

"Well, if she doesn't care what we in the blogosphere think," I said, "why did she hire Peter Daou to build bridges to us?"

That one went unanswered.

Afterward I asked David Gergen about McKinnon's and Penn's claims that their clients are not swayed by polling data. "Of course they are," he said. "All you have do is follow the money and see the exorbitant amounts both parties spend on polling. It's not easy to track, because it's often hidden in RNC and DNC expenditures, so it's not always obvious just how much they're spending on polling, or just how much they rely on it. But clearly, they do."

Joe Klein agreed. "It's disingenuous," he told me, "for these guys to pretend that politicians don't react to the polls and focus groups." As for Hillary, Klein said she "is careful to the point of insanity on every word she utters. It is emblematic of the way modern politicians have lost faith not only in the public, but in themselves."

* Maybe it was the lack of oxygen in the Aspen air, but I initially mixed up my Marks and incorrectly referred to George Bush's and John McCain's media advisor Mark McKinnon as Mark Mellman, who was, of course, John Kerry's pollster -- and about whom I have written numerous times. I told you my brain had been stormed.