Friday, January 4, 2008

Rove vs. Penn

One of the fascinating side bets that are going on behind the scenes of the Presidential race is the battle between the consultants. Hillary Clinton's pollster, Mark Penn, despite his reluctance to speak to the press, had strategically positioned himself over the course of the last year to inherit the mantel of the super-consultant previously worn by Karl Rove. He even published a book this year (just like the rest of the candidates!) called "Microtrends" that apparently builds off the science of "micro-targeting" that Rove perfected in Texas.

Well, after last night Penn is certainly feeling some heat. Not only did his "inevitable" candidate get clobbered, but he spent most of last week slamming the Des Moines Register poll which said as much was going to happen and most of last night doing damage control.

Wherein arrives a delicious dilemma...

Just before the stunning GOP defeat in the 2006 midterm elections, Karl Rove himself sat for an interview with NPR and dismissed all previous polling that suggested Republicans were about to get their asses handed to them. Rove said he had "THE math" that showed the GOP doing better than polls predicted they would. Rove was obviously wrong and anyone listening to the discussion would have immediately recognized the interview as a valiant attempt at spinning a bad situation in order to rally the troops to the polls despite the grim propects.

To that end, you have to admire the way Rove took one for the team. His job, and more importantly his reputation, is to be correct, not to be optimistic. Pollsters and prognosticators need to be right, it's in their anal retentive blood -- and when they're wrong it's usually extremely embarrassing (largely because they operate in such a public manner). Rove was full of shit and he knew it. If you listen to the interview you can pick up the tone of frustration in his voice. He's frustrated because he can't tell the world what he knows and is a bit miffed that he has to go out there and play spin doctor when he knows better.

But, and to his credit, Rove never broke. He has yet to lead on that "THE math" he had access to was any different than the available polling numbers. I'm sure he'll dish someday (perhaps in his memoirs), but by then the statute of limitations will have run out.

So Penn must have been taken by the same feeling of frustration last night when reporters kept hounding him on the flight out to New Hampshire about the way he was dogging the Des Moines Register poll. In fact, he was so frustrated that he cracked and admitted that his whole harangue against the DMR was utter bullshit.

Basically, Penn owned up to lying to the national press corps. That can't be good.

I don't know how much play something like this is going to get in the media; in fact, I'd imagine it would get very little. But it is indicative of something that I started to notice earlier in December: Clinton's crack team of political operatives seem to have forgotten their A-game. These guys have literally written the book on Democratic campaigning and Iowa may have demonstrated that the book needs to be rewritten.

MORE: I just thought of a simpler way of explaining Penn's situation viz. the DMR poll: At the end of the day, Penn would rather be perceived as a liar in the eyes of the press than someone who is an incompetent pollster.

Such are the egos that govern the lives of we mere mortals!

EVEN MORE: Noam Scheiber has another take on Penn's emotional state on the plane out to New Hampshire

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