There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Power of the Vote on the bus

Finished "The Power of the Vote, Electing Presidents, Overthrowing Dictators, and Promoting Democracy Around the World," the memoir of Douglas E. Schoen, the pollster and political consultant who founded Penn, Schoen and Berland, a market research and consulting firm.

Schoen was a pioneer in political polling. He and his partner, Mark Penn, created the first overnight poll, using a microcomputer they purchased for $1,000 and manually keying in the information overnight to present the results the next morning to their customer, New York mayoral candidate Ed Koch in 1977.

Over the years Schoen and his partners were responsible for a number of innovations. For instance, they struck upon the idea of using shoppers at malls as a source for polling, thus mitigating the problems traditional phone polling experiences.

Most amusing for me was the way politics and marketing circled around. After all, Dwight Eisenhower's use of "Madison Avenue" advertising executives was considered avant-garde at the time .

"In the years that followed, however, most of Madison Avenue lost touch with the practice of politics. ... As a result, the big advertising firms and the corporate research departments had failed to develop the kind of quick research and response capacities that we had honed over the course of the preceding decade," Schoen writes. "There was an irony here: Mark and I were now coming full circle, bringing skills once thought to reside exclusively on Madison Avenue back to corporate America."

If you find today's ubiquitous television advertisements for prescription drugs annoying, you can blame Schoen. One of his first corporate clients was Eli Lilly, which was looking for a way to market a new drug: Prozac.

"Although many experts (and television viewers) now decry the proliferation of prescription drug ads, the fact of the matter is that people suffering from depression were not getting the help they needed from the medical profession," Schoen writes. "We advised Eli Lilly to speak directly to this significant segment of the public."

And, of course, this good deed had its reward. As Schoen explains, "By the end of its first decade in the marketplace, sales of Prozac had earned Eli Lilly an estimated $28 billion." <-- note the "b" in that last word. Having recently read Amy B. Zegart's "Spying Blind" and earlier George Crile's "Charlie Wilson's War," I found particularly interesting Schoen's brief encounter with the CIA's analysts.

In September 1999, Schoen's company fielded a benchmark poll for opponents of Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic. The poll found Milosevic vulnerable. The conclusions were circulated in the White House and came to the attention of the CIA. Schoen was invited to brief the CIA on his polling in Serbia and his conclusion that Milosevic lacked popular support.

"My audience at the CIA wasn't just skeptical. It was hostile. The analysts questioned everything -- my assumptions, my methodology, my sample sizes, even my ability to conduct a proper poll. Needless to say, they also took issue with my conclusions. ... The good news was that the CIA was doing everything right -- spending millions to monitor public opinion, placing analysts in the region for long periods, and so on. The bad news was that it was coming up with findings that a reasonably intelligent political consultant -- one person -- could see were wrong after one week in the country. ..."

Having read Gust Avrakotos' opinion of the Ivy League boys club attitude inside the CIA, it was interesting to read Schoen's impression of his CIA interrogators. Schoen is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard, a graduate of Harvard Law School, and earned his doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University in England.

"The hostility of the CIA ... seemed to reflect some kind of professional resentment. Instead of welcoming an unusual source of information, I was treated like an undergrad whose presentation was claiming time that would have been better given over to senior professors. ... It was only a brief encounter, but it gave me a disturbing insight about the U.S. inteligence community's analytic capabilities."

Schoen, who worked for President Clinton as a pollster and campaign consultant during and after Clinton's re-election campaign, also supports the suggestion in Steven Gillon's "The Pact" that the president was considering a proposal to shore up Social Security by directing a portion of the revenue into the stock market.

"As the second term begain, Mark (Penn) and I began working on a proposal that would simultaneously address the country's most difficult long-term financial problem and make Democrats the party of bold initiatives -- Social Security reform. ... Putting Social Security's finances on a safe foundation would be an historic achievement. It would demonstrate the president's zeal for nonpartisan reform and also appeal to young voters, who recognized that investing in equities was a better way to build wealth than government bonds. It would clearly have been a hard sell -- the liberal wing of the party was adamantly opposed to this idea; however, the surging stock market of the 1990s at least gave us a chance."

But, as both Schoen and Gillon point out, the fallout from the Monica Lewinsky scandal effectively killed any opportunity for bipartisan cooperation.

The book is not a history of polling and market research. But as a memoir of a man who spent 30 years in the business, it is an engaging book and well worth reading.

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