Yet occasionally the work of Penn's company spills onto Hillary's political terrain. Penn's polling firm has worked with the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition--a PR front group for the nuclear power industry--which purports to show "strong support among Americans for nuclear energy." Coincidentally, one of B-M's big projects is the Indian Point nuclear power plant, twenty-four miles north of Manhattan, dubbed by environmentalists "Chernobyl on the Hudson." The plant received the lowest safety rating from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2000, and after 9/11 there were widespread calls from environmentalists, consumer groups and elected officials to shut it down. It has had nine unplanned shutdowns since 2005.
With the help of B-M, Indian Point's owner, Entergy Corporation, struck back with a multipronged ad campaign. Its post-9/11 slogan, "Safe, secure, vital," emphasized security, warning that if Indian Point were closed New York could face a California-style energy crisis. In 2003, after Westchester County legislators passed resolutions condemning Indian Point, B-M set up a classic astroturf group on Entergy's behalf, the Campaign for Affordable Energy, Environmental and Economic Justice, which targeted Democratic incumbents in low-income sections of Westchester who supported closing the plant. If Indian Point were shuttered, the bilingual campaign informed residents, electricity bills would increase, power to public transportation would be jeopardized and dirty power plants would go up in low-income and minority neighborhoods. At the same time, B-M unveiled another organization also bankrolled by Entergy that promoted Indian Point. Following the '06 elections, Entergy unveiled a new slogan, "Right for New York," citing Indian Point as an asset in the fight against global warming. Hillary has called for an "independent safety assessment" but has declined to join Governor Eliot Spitzer and twelve members of Congress in urging that the plant be shut down. Entergy, founded in Arkansas, was a major supporter of Bill Clinton in the 1990s and contributed generously to Hillary in 2000 and 2006.
It's difficult to tell where Penn's corporate life ends and his political one begins. Most Democratic consultants do some business work--it's the easiest way to pay the bills. Yet nobody wears as many hats--and advises as many corporations--as Penn. "Penn and Schoen have displayed a thirst for corporate work, often in conflict with the policy agendas of their political clients, that has long set the bar among Democratic pollsters," wrote Democratic pollster Mark Blumenthal on his blog recently. Furthermore, few Democratic consultants so consistently and publicly advocate an ideology that perfectly complements their corporate clients. Every election cycle Penn discovers a new group of swing voters--"soccer moms," "wired workers," "office park dads"--who happen to be the key to the election and believe the same thing: "Outdated appeals to class grievances and attacks upon corporate perfidy only alienate new constituencies and ring increasingly hollow," Penn has written. Through his longtime association with the Democratic Leadership Council, Penn has been pushing pro-corporate centrism for years. Many of the same companies that underwrite the DLC, such as Eli Lilly, AT&T, Texaco and Microsoft, also happen to be clients of Penn's.
Penn's views often clash with the work of other Democratic pollsters. Half a dozen former PSB staffers say Penn has stretched to get the answers he wanted, including manipulating data, phrasing misleading questions and shifting the demographics of those polled, whether it was for the Clinton campaign in 1996 or a corporate client like Procter & Gamble. For example, Penn was insistent that Clinton's poll numbers in '96 match his poll numbers in '92, say two staffers who worked at PSB during the campaign. If Clinton was underperforming, Penn would artificially add more Democratic-aligned groups to the survey sample to make Bill look better. "He was a great showman, and he'd paint you a nice picture," says one former staffer who worked with Penn in the late '90s. "But the way he got you the data--it was cooked." Staffers who left started a PSB survivors message board documenting what they perceived as personally abusive and unethical behavior in the workplace.
When presented with these allegations, Penn said, "Polling in '96 was 100 percent accurate, to the point," adding, "no staffer you could have talked to ever attended any meeting with any of the clients." He insists that "all weightings and question wording turned out to be accurate." Former partner Doug Schoen adds, "No data was ever manipulated.... There was never any discussion of the polling from 1992 during 1996." In response to the complaints on the message board, Penn dismissed "a nearly decade-old anonymous site with inaccurate material from an unhappy few."
Clients have usually been uninterested in Penn's methodology because they liked his results. But not always. Al Gore fired Penn as his pollster before the 2000 Democratic primaries, in part because he wanted to move in a more populist direction and in part because he didn't trust him. Penn "would write polls to get the result he felt was important," Tony Coelho, Gore's campaign chair, told Rolling Stone. Recently two poll interviewees accused the Denver-based field office of Penn's firm, PSA Interviewing, of conducting misleading telephone polls in California and New Hampshire. The interviewers read to respondents statements like "John Edwards chose not to run for another Senate term because he didn't think he could win, abandoning the fight in Congress against the administration," and "Barack Obama failed to vote in favor of abortion rights nine times as a state senator." Hillary, by contrast, is presented as someone who "was born into a middle-class home where she learned the value of hard work and frugality." At the end of the script the poll asks, "Based on what you've heard, who would you choose as the Democratic candidate for President: Hillary Clinton, John Edwards or Barack Obama?" In response to these accusations, Penn said the charges were false and that "this firm conducts standard political and market research polls...and does not do push polling." He would not confirm or deny that the questions above came from PSA.
These days Penn's few political clients lean to the right. He worked on Joe Lieberman's ill-fated presidential run and the Venezuelan recall referendum in 2004 and Italian billionaire Silvio Berlusconi's unsuccessful re-election campaign last year.
Yet despite his outsized role in the corporate world, his company's close ties to GOP operatives and questions about his polling techniques, Penn remains a leading figure in Hillary's campaign, pitching the inevitability of her nomination to donors and party bigwigs. According to the New York Times, "[Hillary] Clinton responds to Penn's points with exclamations like, Oh, Mark, what a smart thing to say!" His presence means that triangulation is alive and well inside the campaign and that despite her populist forays, Hillary won't stray far from the center or think too big. "Penn has a lot of influence on her, no doubt about it," says New York political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who worked with Penn in '96. "He's not going to let her drift too far left."