The Cult of the Pollster

THE CULT OF THE POLLSTER….In The Nation this week, Ari Berman writes about the various conflicts of interest posed by Mark Penn’s polling work for Hillary Clinton while remaining CEO of one of the world’s biggest PR firms. Matt Yglesias responds:

What Ari doesn’t get into is whether, all that notwithstanding, Penn is just such a brilliant pollster that we should all be thrilled to have someone of his stature working for a leading Democrat. I would say “no.”

Can someone please explain to me the cult of the pollster in big league politics? It seems like it all dates from Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign, when Patrick Caddell became the first celebrity pollster, generally portrayed in gushing media reports as a cross between Rasputin and Wernher von Braun. Is that right? Or am I too young to remember genuine celebrity pollsters before that?

In any case, I can see how having a rocket scientist pollster on board might have been helpful back then. Polling was still fairly limited, and having somebody to do your own work and really think hard about what it meant might give you a real leg up. But today? Surely any politician with an IQ in three digits is pretty well aware of what people think and how they vote. You can hardly avoid knowing it given the tidal wave of polling information available at the national level these days. And the number of people who know how to read and interpret that tidal wave of data is way bigger than it was 30 years ago.

So in terms of raw polling skill, what does Penn bring to the table? Anything? I don’t get it.

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