Mark Penn, an influential politico who has been dubbed the “king of polling,” announced his plans Friday to gift a portion of his personal collection of polls to establish the Society of Presidential Pollsters within GW’s Graduate School of Political Management.
In an interview with The Hatchet from his office in downtown D.C. Friday afternoon, Penn said he plans to donate polls taken from 1995 to 2000, when he served as the presidential pollster for President Bill Clinton.
“The idea is to set up an archive for presidential polling and to reach out to former presidents, the Presidential Libraries and other sources over time to create a center where people can study the polls that the presidents have looked at,” Penn said. “It would be tremendously valuable to scholars later on if a center could be created where people can study these polls.”
Penn is also establishing two endowments for this society, funding the housing, preservation and maintenance of the data. He declined to say how much he is donating, but to establish endowments at GW, donors must give at least $100,000.
This society will be the first of its kind, Penn said. Speechwriters for the White House often come together but as of yet, no organization exists for past pollsters to gather. Penn hopes that the society will have access to every presidential poll ever recorded.
“The goal is to assemble every single presidential poll in history and assemble it in one place,” he said. “It doesn’t appear that there is such a place now.”
Penn joined Clinton’s administration in 1995 after the Democrats faced heavy losses during the 1994 midterm elections, and is credited with creating a campaign strategy that helped clinch the White House for Clinton in 1996. He was also part of the team that crafted Clinton’s response to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment trial. Penn has worked with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her Senate and presidential campaigns.
Penn did not know when the polls would be available, as he is still working with Clinton to discuss which polls should be included as well as when this data would be available. Often, presidential polling data is not released until decades after the president leaves the White House.
“I think we are setting up something of interest that will be available in the distant future. I think if you’re doing something for history you’re going to find that you have to start now, or else the materials will be gone,” Penn said. “There won’t be any good polling stories coming out of this now, but the point of this is that, sometime in the future, there will be some place for people to go back and study.”
His favorite piece of data, which he hopes will be included, are the polls he conducted after former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich threatened to shut down the government in 1995 over budget bills. Penn found through a series of polls that the American people would blame Gingrich and the Republicans if the government shut down. The polls were accurate, he said, and the government shutdown turned out disastrously for House Republicans.
The center plans to reach out to past presidential pollsters, starting with the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidency, and record oral histories for those who are still alive.
“I think we can go back to FDR, document the history of presidential polling, which has not been done before,” Penn said.
Unlike the polling data, the oral histories would be available immediately.
GSPM Dean Christopher Arterton said the gift and the new center will highlight GW’s strengths for future students.
“From our perspective, this gift will create a significant opportunity for GW students to explore and understand how opinion polling is used in formulating public policies,” Arterton said. “And, the existence of the Penn archives and a society of presidential pollsters will serve to highlight the unique opportunities available to GW students.” u