The Strategist of Small Things
Does Mark Penn's relentless focus on microdemographics really make a broader liberal agenda impossible?
By Ed Kilgore
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If Microtrends had been published under the name of coauthor E. Kinney Zalesne rather than Mark Penn, it would probably have been a quiet best-seller with a cult following. Instead, it's being evaluated, for better or worse, as a glimpse into the mind of Hillary Clinton's chief strategist and pollster. And in many progressive circles, Penn is often thought of as exemplifying the dark side of Clintonism. The reasons are legion: his corporate background and current position as CEO of a massive public relations firm noted for union busting; his association with Dick Morris and the alleged "triangulation" strategy for Bill Clinton's reelection campaign in 1996; his penchant for media-friendly catchphrases for key voter subcategories (e.g., soccer moms and office park dads); and his informal reputation among rival pollsters for opaque and questionable methodologies.

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A sprawling book like Microtrends, which purports to identify seventy-five distinct subcategories (sixty-four American, and eleven international) of people who have yet to get noticed by corporate and political marketers, provides plenty of targets for Penn detractors. In a review for In These Times, Ezra Klein cherry-picked some of the sillier and sloppier sections of the book, and constructed a demolition not just of Penn, but of political pollsters generally.

But it's important to understand that Microtrends isn't primarily a political book; it's classified as a business book by the publisher, and by most bookstores. And truth be told, it is probably aimed at that book-consumer sweet spot occupied nearly a generation ago by its obvious model: John Naisbett's Megatrends, which for a couple of years in the early 1980s was required reading for business executives, politicians, and pretty much anyone who wanted to appear well informed. It's a niche book about niche markets, destined to become, in its "quality paperback" iteration, a staple of airport bookstands.

Moreover, the book isn't a compilation of gleanings from Penn's own polling. Some of the "microtrends" are derived from census data, some from election and business reports, and some from surveys conducted by other polling firms. The mixed sources are compounded by mixed interpretive themes that aren't always of equal sophistication or seriousness. Klein's review, for example, dwells on an item entitled "Southpaws Unbound" and quite properly mocks Penn's suggestion that more left-handers could mean more creativity in our society. But that item really seems aimed at telling corporate readers they can make a bundle customizing products and services for the growing "southpaw" population, and that's almost certainly correct.

As it happens, only five of the microtrends in this book are described as being about political preferences, and of those, one ("Newly Released Ex-Cons") is actually about crime policy, while another ("Christian Zionists") is very old news, and a third ("Militant Illegals") is clearly out of date, given this year's backlash against illegal immigration. A fourth political microtrend ("Swing Is Still King") is really an effort to refute a trend identified by others: the supposed disappearance of swing voters. And the main value of Penn's analysis here has nothing to do with trends, macro or micro, but flows from his commonsense but often ignored observation that "turning" a swing voter has much greater pound-for-pound electoral value (producing a net gain of two votes) than "mobilizing" a nonvoter (a gain of one net vote, or perhaps less if your effort helps the other side mobilize a potential voter as well).

That's not to say that the nonpolitical microtrends in this book don't sometimes have considerable political import. At its best, Microtrends helps debunk outdated stereotypes of how Americans live which are often the foundation for outdated political judgments. One example is "Second Home Buyers," which illustrates the increasingly middle-class nature of multiple home ownership, and warns that efforts to curtail tax subsidies for second homes will offend a lot of people who aren't necessarily Republicans. And a whole host of sections on gender roles, work-family balance, and commuting patterns challenge a multitude of common assumptions about family, workplace, and transportation policies.

Indeed, one clear object of this book is to show the increasing irrelevance of one stereotype—the suburban soccer mom—that Penn himself famously helped create during the 1990s. In this respect, Penn is reminiscent of the great statistics-savvy baseball analyst Bill James, who often shrewdly noted that his numbers-averse "traditionalist" critics were defending ideas about how to win baseball games that were based on limited or outdated statistics. Penn's critics often fear that his goal is to undermine broad progressive political themes by encouraging an unprincipled slicing and dicing of the electorate to identify various swing targets. But there's nothing inherently wrong with understanding the electorate in all its complexity, and forswearing microanalysis guarantees willful ignorance but does not guarantee a macropolitics of progressive principle.

While there is plenty of useful material in Microtrends for people who don't view it as some sort of insight into the dark arts of the Clinton campaign, two of Penn's frequently repeated big-picture arguments aren't so compelling.

For one thing, there's the basic premise of the book—that microtrends have replaced megatrends as the things to watch, due to the disaggregating effects of modern technology. But a very large chunk of the microtrends Penn is writing about are derived from a single megatrend: the emergence of women into the external labor force, with all the vast ancillary effects of that phenomenon. "Trends" are typically the result of both centrifugal and centripetal forces, and Penn's assumption that the former are increasingly undermining rather than reflecting or underlying the latter isn't self-evidently correct.

And secondly, Penn's passionate belief that "numbers don't lie" often obscures legitimate questions about how particular numbers are derived, particularly in public opinion surveys.

A good illustration of that problem is the microtrend that Penn calls "Impressionable Elites," which has created a fair amount of buzz in political circles. Based entirely on a survey by Penn's firm, this item purports to show that voters earning more than $100,000 per year are much more likely than those earning less to say they vote on the basis of candidates' character rather than their stands on issues. Thus, concludes Penn triumphantly, in one of those "counterintuitive" observations he loves: "The elite information circle is dominated by people who live in the world of the top 10 percent, and while in the past that helped drive discussion to more substantive levels, today it does just the opposite." Take that, elitist disparagers of the substantive but charisma-challenged Hillary Clinton!

But the question Penn asked about candidate characteristics is a classic "leading question" that invited a particular "right" answer; who, after all, wants to admit they vote on the basis of superficial rather than substantive factors? It's entirely possible that cynical elitists are no more inclined than regular folks to care about "character" but are simply more likely to admit it.

I emphasize this issue because the framing of survey questions in a way that invites "right" answers can produce numbers that do, indeed, lie. A particularly significant example occurred in 2004, when polls (not by Penn's firm, by the way) showing strong voter aversion to partisanship and to negative campaigning led to a series of bad strategic decisions by John Kerry's campaign. Americans may well want to believe they don't respond to negative campaigning, but they do, and they did in 2004 when Kerry was buried by a barrage of misinformation and mockery from his opponents. You don't have to think voters are fools or knaves to understand that observing their behavior is sometimes as important as respecting their stated opinions.

Since as much of Microtrends is based on analysis of behaviors as opposed to opinions, I'm reasonably sure Mark Penn isn't as totalitarian in his faith in opinion surveys as he sometimes seems to suggest.

But that brings me full circle: what, if anything, does Microtrends tell us about Hillary Clinton's campaign? Your guess is as good as mine, but I'll wager that HRC's campaign, particularly if it gets to a general election, will devote some serious resources to microtargeting, that corporate-marketing-based practice of customized voter ID and messaging that reportedly did wonders for George W. Bush in 2004. That doesn't mean Clinton will run on "micro-initiatives." As the Bush campaign showed, you can certainly run on a broad-based, even simplistic, overall campaign message and still use sophisticated knowledge of voter subgroups to design particular appeals to particular audiences. I'd be surprised if some of the seventy-five microtrends in this book aren't reflected in targeted e-mails and phone calls at some point—probably along with a few hundred others that you can't read about in any airport, at least until election day.

   

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Ed Kilgore is managing editor of the Democratic Strategist, an online magazine and weblog site.  
 
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