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The Pollster Getting Under Democrats’ Skin

One of the biggest threats to Joe Biden’s reelection is a third party candidate — viable or not.

It wouldn’t take much for a third party or independent contender to tip the election in Donald Trump’s favor. In 2020, the presidency was decided by less than 40,000 votes in three swing states. And in 2024, third party fever seems to be on the rise. Already, Cornel West, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Jill Stein are running.

Then there’s the quixotic movement known as No Labels, which has cited a stream of polling data arguing that a large majority of Americans are crying out for an alternative to Trump and Biden.

The man producing those polls is Mark Penn, best known for two things: his devotion to centrist politics and his longtime role as the top pollster and strategist for Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Penn’s wife Nancy Jacobson runs No Labels and frequently uses Penn’s data to support her project, though he says he has no role in the organization. Penn reports that 64 percent of voters say “the country needs another choice” if it’s a Biden-Trump rematch and that most voters would consider a moderate, independent candidate as an alternative to the current president and former president.

Not surprisingly, the couple’s work has infuriated Democrats — who are spending money to discredit them, sue No Labels, thwart the group’s voter registration efforts and pressure its affiliates.

So what does Mark Penn think about all of this? We decided to ask him.

I caught up with Penn on this week’s Playbook Deep Dive podcast. We talked about his controversial polls, his real relationship with No Labels and why he thinks that Nikki Haley may still have a big role to play in this year’s election.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

You have been very, very bullish on the demand for a third party out there, and a lot of people disagree with you on this one. But make the case: What have you learned in your polling recently about whether the electorate is screaming out for a third-party option?

I had a question that I did maybe a year and a half ago: If it’s Biden vs. Trump, would you consider a moderate independent? Now, I know that question. I did John Anderson’s polling [in 1980], if you remember him. I did Ross Perot’s polling — his benchmark [ahead of 1992] — his very first poll. There was maybe 30, 35 percent who were really interested and could go for a third party. He got up to 39 percent in June [1992], right before he pulled out.

But I look at the conditions today, and about 60 percent say they would consider a moderate independent. Two-thirds are unhappy with the economy, half say their life is getting worse, 70 percent say they don’t like the choice that they have. So is there an opportunity? Certainly there’s an opportunity, whether or not the right person comes up and does it.

But third parties, when they come along, attract attention because they are addressing an issue that the two major parties are ignoring. Then, usually, the two parties kind of realize they’ve ignored something and co-opt that issue, and the third party dies. What is the issue that a third party could actually run on that Trump and Biden aren’t addressing?

The very issue of national unity and solving problems like immigration. Comprehensive immigration reform has been favored by 65 or 70 percent of the population for the last 10 years.

Most issues have solutions that, in the current polarized environment, aren’t getting implemented. The opening here would be for a third party to come in and say: “Look, we’re going to actually fix the problems because we’re going to be divorced from the partisanship that the Republicans and Democrats have just dug themselves into.” Never forget that Abraham Lincoln was, in effect, a third-party [candidate], one with 39 percent [of the vote in 1860].

There’s an entity called No Labels that seems to want to be the vessel for this third-party movement. And all of their presentations cite your surveys. So tell us a little bit about No Labels, and your involvement or non-involvement in that.

Well, let’s just be very clear: My wife, Nancy Jacobson, founded No Labels when I was busy with the Hillary campaign. She runs it and makes the decisions. I have no formal or informal role other than that I occasionally look at some polling and I support my wife.

And she tries to make clear that she’s just getting ballot access [for a potential ticket] — she’s just creating an opportunity if somebody were to come along and be the right person. I can assure you: She’s not someone who ever would even consider voting for Trump. Somehow, the Democrats don’t fully understand that fact. I have a very full-time job at the moment running a company that’s got 12,000 people. People don’t quite realize that I left all this behind having spent about 30 years in the trenches.

I’ve got to push you on this a little bit. Larry Hogan, in the fall, was at this event at the Hay-Adams hotel in Washington. He said, “Mark and Nancy came to talk to me about their big third-party idea.” So I feel like you’ve got to take a little bit of responsibility, if you have some of these candidates running out there, using your name.

I’m surprised. I maybe spoke to him, in my entire life, once for 10 minutes. I didn’t catch that. But I can assure you that my wife really is running this effort. And I am off running a company that I delight in.

Fair enough. Who else do you think is on the list for No Labels?

You’re going to have to ask Nancy. I don’t know whether there’s going to be a person who emerges. Who would have thought Ross Perot? [Jacobson told POLITICO last year that the group hadn’t formally identified potential recruits but that it would choose someone in the mold of Perot.]

A lot of Democrats, as you know, are very mad at you guys about this.

And I always say that what they should have done is just have a steak with her, and they’d realize what a mistake they’ve made and how much time they have wasted barking up the wrong tree.

She’s approached this thing in a very sensible way, and she has no intention whatsoever of being a spoiler in any concept, in any concept. That’s a very important value to her. I think they’ve wasted a lot of effort by not just sitting down with her and understanding that.

I want to talk a little bit about Trump. I wonder if you have thoughts about what he did right in 2016, what he did wrong in 2020, or the differences between those campaigns and what he might learn from in 2024.

I thought it was night and day. In 2016, he staked out a number of clear issues — immigration, trade, crime. To some extent, he flipped Democratic issues around. And he took working-class constituencies as a result of flipping those issues.

In 2020, he had no new issues, no new agenda. He was flailing all over the place. It was a terrible campaign. He was lucky to get as many votes as he got in 2020. His debate performances were kind of bizarre.

What he’s doing so far has surprised me. He’s got higher numbers than he had before. He’s got a 48 percent favorable. He’s got a better organization, it seems to me, than he had before. He’s a lot more formidable.

We had David Axelrod on the podcast recently and heard his whole critique of the Biden operation. What’s your critique of what they’ve done so far in terms of general election strategy?

I was very unhappy with what they did during the summer because it’s really a good time to put a fresh face on what you’re doing, get around the country, stake out some issues. And instead, he was on the beach, kind of half-clothed the entire time. I thought the summer was a disaster. And by the time everybody got back on Labor Day, his numbers really started to tank. The summer was wasted.

I think now their strategy is: We’re losing the top issues, so we’re going to draw the line with Trump and we’re going to make the campaign about Trump and not us. And we’re going to say: “Do you want Trump or do you want four more years of reasonable Democratic rule?” I don’t think that’s a bad strategic choice. I’d always like to see more issues, more agenda, more clarity. I think politics in general is just too negative. But as a strategy now, hey, it worked twice. They’re hitting that strategy hard.

I do think they have to deal with the age issue. You can’t make him younger, but you’ve got to find a format that works for him that is comfortable. We found the town hall format for Hillary was where she was able to shine. She wasn’t the best stump speech speaker, but she was great in an interactive town hall setting. They’ve got to look for that. He’s a highly personable guy — that was really one of his core attributes. People want to think, “Look, he may be old, but he’s a decent guy at the end of the day who’s going to make good decisions for the country.”

On Trump, what we didn’t talk about are the prosecutions, the indictments. I know you’ve dug into that and come up with some surprising conclusions. Lay out the real political risks that you found there.

I was thinking about how to formulate questions, and so I said: “Suppose he’s convicted in the classified documents case, who would you vote for?” And what I found out is they don’t care about the documents. So I said: “What if he’s convicted in Georgia?” They care somewhat about that. And then I said: “Well, what if he’s convicted in the January 6th case of having helped foment the riot?” Then Biden won. So it really said to me, OK, the case that Jack Smith wants to prosecute, that’s the dangerous case.

Now, that presupposes that he connects Trump to the actual violence, but if you do that and you do that legally and a jury convicts him, at that point, Biden won. He didn’t win overwhelmingly — he won by 4. But it did move the race 10 points basically.

On the flip side, if they do actually have a trial before Election Day — which is obviously very much up in the air — if he’s not convicted, that’s going to be a huge boost. And he will perhaps be better off than having not been indicted at all.

That’s some high stakes politics. Yes. Absolutely. I don’t think there’s any question: If he was actually acquitted by a jury on that, close to the election, that would give him a tremendous boost.

In your last poll, immigration has emerged as a top-tier issue. I think I heard you say recently that it’s the first time that you can remember, in your polling, it rising to this level? Give us a sense of how important immigration is right now, according to the surveys you’ve done.

So we ask voters: Name your top three issues. And for the very first time, in this month’s Harvard CAPS/Harris poll, immigration came up as the number one issue in the country. That just has never been the case. There was once a time when crime was the most important issue, maybe in the 80s, early 90s. Never was there a time that I can recall when immigration was number one, displacing the economy.

I always had an interesting question: How many people do you think are coming across the border every month? And most people would say, like, 10,000. The more they learned the facts — that it was hundreds of thousands, right — the more this was going to explode as an issue if left unaddressed. And look, the best thing going for Trump, at the moment, is that the number one issue is immigration.

What are the implications for Biden and his current negotiations with Congress?

Oh, the politics are: Make a deal, pretend that you’re dragged kicking and screaming, and do your best to take the issue off the table. You try to move your issues forward: climate change, racial equality, abortion rights. You move those forward, and when you’re playing defense on the Republican issues, you have to take them off the table.

This was essentially the 1996 reelection strategy for Bill Clinton with welfare reform.

Well, yes. But I would say that I deployed that strategy probably 20 times back in the day. It was the same strategy I had with Tony Blair: The conservatives had immigration, and we had to take it off the table. Once we got it off the table, then we’d win on all the other issues.

I don’t think [Biden] can take immigration off the table. He waited too long for that. But he’s got to neutralize it in some way, because of its intensity — once it got to the major cities and once the mayors started to complain, and once taxpayers realized that there was an enormous bill that would go to citizens other than those who just live in Texas, this thing exploded.

Just as a practical matter, he’s running for reelection. He can’t have his lowest rating on the number one issue. I won’t call it “fatal,” but let’s call that “super difficult.”

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