Why the Obama Campaign Has Six Pollsters

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The Obama campaign has six — count 'em, six — pollsters. Chris Cillizza of Washingtonpost.com discusses why so many, and what they all do.

MIKE PESCA, host:

This is the part of the campaign where the candidate fattens up before slaughter. Not literally. Barack Obama isn't gaining weight, and we're not saying he's going to get slaughtered, but at this point, you amassed your resources, your staff, your offices, for the stretch run through the primaries and the election in November. The Obama campaign has added staff, and for those of you playing along at home, he has up to six different polling firms working for him. That's a lot. Chris Cillizza blogs "The Fix" on washingtonpost.com. He joins us now. Hey, Chris.

Mr. CHRIS CILLIZZA ("The Fix," washingtonpost.com): Hey, Mike.

PESCA: Six pollsters? Well, I could have said two checking the other four, but then what happens?

Mr. CILLIZZA: Well, look. You know, for all the talk - and this is true in any campaign - Barack Obama says we're going to do things differently, you know, we're going to change things, but the reality is, is they all rely on a significant number of consultants, whether it's pollsters, media consultants, senior advisers, however they define it. Almost every campaign has a number of pollsters.

Now, Obama's campaign is unique in that even during the primary season, Hillary Clinton essentially had one primary pollster, Mark Penn, who got a lot of attention, both good and bad, and they added another one, a guy named Geoff Garin, about three quarters of the way through. So, they had two polling firms. Obama always had four, which was quite a lot, and then he has now added two more in the general election.

But basically what these people do is, it's a big country. Barack Obama is going to try and play in a lot of different states that Democrats have not traditionally been competitive in, and the theory is that you need to have people with local expertise, pollsters who have polled in states for a number of years, who know what the electorate should look like, who know how to get this thing right. But it's - that's a lot of data coming into a campaign on a daily basis.

PESCA: That's interesting. So if the idea was, hey, look, we're just going to try to win this thing by winning Florida or Ohio, you know, the way Gore tried to win, and the way Kerry tried to win, maybe we wouldn't have to have so many pollsters, but if we're going to fight it out in the West, if we're going to fight it out in Virginia, we need pollsters in those places. What about fighting it out with ethnic groups? Do they have people looking at, say, specifically, as, like, the Latino community in Virginia?

Mr. CILLIZZA: They absolutely do, although it is not state specific. They do have people who have polled the Hispanic community on a national level. They also have - frankly, they have media consultants who do advertising almost specifically aimed at the Hispanic community. They have a group called Fuse Media, which is based out of St. Louis, Missouri, that does African-American media.

And so, you know, it is a very, very specialized profession these days, is that - if you can prove that you can get a niche of voters to come out and vote for the candidate you're working for, you probably can get business. So, you see it sort of across the spectrum. Everyone is going more narrow as opposed to more broad.

PESCA: Let's talk about some of the brains behind Barack Obama, and he's a very smart guy himself, but David Axelrod of Chicago, they're also hiring more staff, including high-profile hirees from the Hillary Clinton campaign. Talk about that a little.

Mr. CILLIZZA: Yeah, there's sort of two levels of the Obama campaign on the staff front. One is the people who've been with him either from the start of his political career, or from the start of this presidential - David Axelrod, Chicago-based media consultant. This is a guy who's done a lot of different campaigns. He's sort of come into the national spotlight with Barack Obama, but he's been around for a long time.

He is sort of Obama's closest political advisor, has been around him from the beginning, and headlines sort of a core group of 10-ish people, who are either close personal friends of Obama's, or senior-staff level people. That would include a David Plouffe, for example, the campaign manager, somebody like Dan Pfeiffer, who's communications director, and who have been with Obama from the beginning.

You then have - and you mentioned this, you then have a group of people that the campaign has grown into, that they're adding as you go to a general election. The reality is, as all encompassing as the primary was, a general election - especially as I mentioned before, a general election where a candidate wants to try and grow the traditional playing field, is a huge undertaking.

So earlier this week, they brought on Patty Solis Doyle. That's a name I'm sure - familiar to some of your listeners. She was Hillary's Clinton's campaign manager all the way through February this year, when she was ousted. She was Senator Clinton's closest confident on the political front for many years, although I don't believe the two are particularly close anymore. That was seen as a sign, bringing Patty Solis Doyle on, and her job will be to manage, whoever the vice president is, to sort of manage their life in the campaign.

PESCA: Uh-huh.

Mr. CILLIZZA: That was seen as a sign that the vice president won't likely be Hillary Clinton, because obviously the senator and Patty Solis Doyle don't enjoy the closest of relationships. So, you know, a lot of people think stats stuff is sort of not important, not worth paying attention to, but in a lot of ways, staff hiring, especially the Solis Doyle hiring, sends signals about what the campaign is thinking more broadly.

PESCA: You don't have to tell me that. I'm a Mets fan and I'm waiting to see how the post-Willie Randolph era takes effect. Well, let's talk - I mean, Patty Solis Doyle, is she blamed for Hillary Clinton's stumbles? Or is it more seen like she took the unfair brunt of criticism after Hillary did stumble?

Mr. CILLIZZA: Well, look. Any time the candidate who everyone expects to be the nominee, isn't the nominee, there's going to be a huge blame game that ensues. And the two people who generally get blamed the most, and that's because of how high up they were in the organization, were Patty Solis Doyle and Mark Penn, who was the pollster and chief strategist.

PESCA: But were they even - those two, were they simpatico?

Mr. CILLIZZA: No.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. CILLIZZA: And that was part of the problem in the Clinton world, and I think Senator Clinton knew that going in. I think she knew that there was going to be some tension within her innermost circle, but I think she was hoping it would be creative tension.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. CILLIZZA: And it wound up being disruptive tension. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign was, you know, putting plan B, C, D, E and F in effect and, you know, we saw a result of that after Super Tuesday on February 5th.

PESCA: Michael Lewis calls these campaign strategists "rented strangers," which I think is a great phrase, but can you tell - what can you tell me about Obama's staff, Plouffe, Pfeifer, and of course, Axelrod? Are they really cohesive, but not so cohesive that they don't challenge the candidate? Mr. CILLIZZA: One quick thing. First of all, they deserve a huge amount of credit for the campaign they've run.

PESCA: They won with an underdog. Yeah.

Mr. CILLIZZA: That said, having a candidate as gifted as Barack Obama makes up for a lot of problems in a campaign.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. CILLIZZA: You know what I mean? The guy has a lot of gifts, and so he's going to gloss over and make you look good, but I think what you've seen - the thing that the - and much to my chagrin as a reporter, but the thing that is very admirable and effective in the way Obama inner circles handle itself is they don't really leak a lot of information out. They don't try and one-up one another. They don't vie for the press's affection. They generally stay very, very disciplined.

And I think that comes from David Plouffe. I've known him for a long time. He's been involved in Democratic campaigns, House and Senate campaigns, for a long time. He is an extremely disciplined guy, who, unlike many people who are at that high-profile a job, has really no interest in getting quoted in the New York Times and the Washington Post, being on television. He's a guy who is a practitioner of politics, and takes that role very seriously.

So I think he has set an example, and you saw throughout the campaign, you know, you saw the Clinton folks, in a lot of ways, tearing each other apart, and you very rarely saw any internal division or dissention from the Obama campaign. That doesn't mean it didn't exist. There's always some level of, you know, of dissention and disagreement within these campaigns, but they did a good job of keeping it in house, and not litigating out their problems in the media.

PESCA: Chris Cillizza is the author of "The Fix" on washingtonpost.com. Thank you, sir.

Mr. CILLIZZA: Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: This is NPR.

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