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Former Obama, Clinton pollster Joel Benenson talks campaign strategy

<p>Pollster Joel Benenson (left) and Professor of History and Public Affairs Julian Zelizer (right) talk politics in the Friend Center.</p>
<h6>Photo Credit: Evelyn Doskoch / The Daily Princetonian</h6>

Pollster Joel Benenson (left) and Professor of History and Public Affairs Julian Zelizer (right) talk politics in the Friend Center.

Photo Credit: Evelyn Doskoch / The Daily Princetonian

On Wednesday, Oct. 2, award-winning Democratic pollster Joel Benenson, who has worked on multiple presidential campaigns, gave University students a glimpse into the inner workings of a prominent political operation.

At the event, titled “What the Press and Pundits Get Wrong: Reading the Electorate,” Benenson discussed what he sees as common errors in political strategy and misinterpretations of polling data. He also discussed his past experiences working with high-profile political candidates.

Benenson consulted for Bill Clinton’s 1996 presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign, and New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez’s 2018 successful re-election campaign. His firm currently advises presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and Israeli Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz.

At the event, held in the Friend Center, Benenson was joined by CNN political analyst and Wilson School professor Julian Zelizer.

Benenson has been named “Pollster of the Year” by the American Association of Political Consultants and is the founder and CEO of Benenson Strategy Group, a nationwide consulting firm. He was invited to the Woodrow Wilson School as the Conor D. Reilly Distinguished Visitor in Leadership and Governance.

Much of the talk centered on the challenges faced by campaign strategists, namely how to appeal to voters and respond to critics. Topics included Obama’s historic presidential campaign, the source of Clinton's downfall in 2016, and the political dynamics that have characterized President Trump’s tumultuous tenure in office.

In particular, Benenson made the distinction between “horse race” questions, which simply ask voters who they will vote for, and “more pertinent questions” about policy and the electorate itself. Many political analysts and pollsters, he said, are too focused on the “horse race.”

“The job of a pollster isn’t just to take your temperature,” Benenson said. “The job of a pollster and a strategist is really to go beneath the surface and try to unearth what my firm calls ‘the hidden architecture of opinion’: what’s really going on in people’s lives.”

This “hidden” perspective, Benenson explained, is necessary in order to truly understand the American electorate, a constantly evolving country without static demographics. Some campaigns, he said, underestimate people’s tendency to change over time.

“I think you make a big mistake politically if you start assuming that demographics are destiny,” he said. “You’ve got to earn every vote.”

Though he acknowledged the importance of preparation during any campaign, Benenson emphasized the importance of being able to adapt. Every campaign, he said, is bound to encounter “three” major unexpected pitfalls. The way campaigns adapt to such sudden challenges, Benenson explained, “determines who wins and who loses.”

These issues came into play during Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2016, for which Benenson served as chief strategist.

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Clinton’s biggest pitfall, he said, revolved around her use of a private email server. He explained how the campaign’s lack of internal knowledge on the matter made quick adaptation difficult.

“We didn’t know about it,” he said. “We started working on that campaign in late December … a big chunk of us found out about it in March, when it was on the front page of the paper one morning.”

Though Clinton’s loss was surprising to many, Benenson said that the polls were not necessarily wrong, just poorly represented. Many news outlets, he said, would present horse race polls with Clinton in the lead, rather than discussing the underlying trends behind the polls and the fact that her lead was declining over time in battleground states.

Benenson also talked about his role as a polling specialist for Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012 and compared and contrasted Obama’s re-election campaign to what he expects out of Trump’s 2020 campaign. He said that one of Obama’s greatest strengths, his ability to unite the nation, is one of Trump’s greatest weaknesses, noting Trump’s low approval ratings when it comes to handling national tragedies.

“Obama had what I call ‘reparative skills.’ Obama had enough introspection and self-awareness that, if he had to fix problems, he would work on fixing problems with the electorate,” he said. Benenson sees Trump’s “narcissism” as preventing him from practicing similarly unifying behavior.

With regards to Trump, Zelizer asked Benenson what he sees in the polls that seek to determine public support for impeachment.

“Having an impeachment inquiry is a totally legitimate exercise,” Benenson replied. “I think it’s hard for me to fathom that the majority of Americans will [think] that asking and inviting a foreign leader to provide dirt on one of your political opponents isn’t an impeachable offense.”

Benenson also mentioned his role in the 1996 election of Bill Clinton to his second term as President and discussed Bob Menendez’s controversial but ultimately successful 2018 Senate bid in New Jersey.

Menendez’s campaign was overshadowed by his 2015 indictment on corruption charges, which were later dropped after a hung jury was unable to reach a verdict on Menendez’s case. Benenson explained how polls conducted at the time showed that while many voters believed Menendez was corrupt, they also felt that his actions were no different than those of other politicians.

“His opponent attacked him relentlessly on it, ran ads on it — we never responded to the ads on Menendez’s corruption, because we knew it was falling on deaf ears,” he said.

Menendez defeated his Republican challenger Robert Hugin ’76, a former University Trustee.

Benenson also recently returned from Israel, where he was advising Israeli opposition party leader Benny Gantz in his recent campaign against sitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In addition to explaining the complexities of Israel’s parliamentary system, Benenson discussed what he saw as misconceptions in conventional thinking on Israeli politics.

“When I first got there, a lot of what I heard was, ‘Every election is about security … that’s Netanyahu’s strength,’” he said. “But there were other things going on in Israel. My job was to figure out why, and in my first poll, things like healthcare and education were popping up.”

In the question-and-answer session, which followed the discussion with Zelizer, one student brought up the donor record of presidential hopeful Mayor Pete Buttigieg, one of Benenson’s current clients, which Benenson countered with a reference to Buttigieg’s grassroots fundraising and more than 600,000 small donors to date.

Another audience member asked him to make predictions about the outcome of 2020 Democratic primaries, to which he responded that he does not have “a crystal ball.”

Benenson recognized the emphasis many voters have placed on “electability,” but noted that most primary voters consider their candidate of choice “electable.” Though “electability” is difficult to quantify, Benenson said that candidates will be able to prove their electability in time.

“Winning primaries makes you look electable,” he said, “and the first ballot is money.”