Sept. 5, 2007 — -- Mark Penn is a self-described numbers junkie who started out as a shy boy from the Bronx, N.Y. Penn's shyness has actually become an asset -- he wanted to discover what people were thinking without having to ask them.
Penn conducted his first poll at age 13. It was a poll about race relations in America, and the moment he sent it out, he said he realized, "Wow, I can find out what different people thought by sending out flyers and analyzing them, and being a different detective. … I always found it fascinating from this very first poll."
He now polls on everything from the Iraq War to what television shows people watch (Republicans like "24," he said. And for the last 10 years he has been the man that Bill and Hillary Clinton have enlisted to help them figure out what voters think.
Penn crafts the questions, interprets the answers and currently serves as Mrs. Clinton's most influential adviser, her senior strategist.
Despite his influence, Penn said he's no Karl Rove. Penn said that he is "Hillary Clinton's Mark Penn, I'm no Karl Rove, and I'm doing my work in this campaign, and I hope it turns out tremendously well."
Penn said he sees Rove "as a brand." "What he's done really stands for a philosophy, I think, dividing the country," he said. "I've always been about bringing the country together, looking for swing voters."
When President Bush's Karl Rove announced his resignation last month, he took to the airwaves to question Sen. Clinton's electability in a general election. In response, Clinton said "it's interesting that he is so obsessed with me. And I think the reason is we know how to win."
Penn is credited with helping both Clintons win and has been a key figure in the senator's political ascent. Penn zeroed in on small, local issues in New York to help the former first lady overcome her negatives in a state where she had no roots. He is famous for discovering the "soccer mom," the key swing vote that helped President Clinton get re-elected in 1996. Penn was the first person Bill Clinton embraced at the Democratic convention that year.
So if the soccer mom was the key in 1996 for Bill Clinton, what will it be key for his wife? Penn said he doesn't know who the key swing voters will be just yet. "This election is different because with Sen. Clinton, I think there's going to be a huge outpouring of women for the senator," he said.
There is no doubt in Penn's mind, at this early date, that his candidate will be the Democratic nominee. "I believe she's going to be the nominee. I think every day is a good one, and I think that as every day goes on people see that she has the strength and experience to become president," he said.
Penn welcomed "Nightline" into a strategy meeting last week. The question on the table was a sensitive one: How would Sen. Clinton fare as a national candidate against various Republican opponents?
Sitting with his polling team, which included Amy Leviton, Andrew Claster and Josh Werman, Penn looked over the latest maps, and in counting up the blue states saw Clinton now ahead now 337 electoral votes. Once again, the key seems to be zeroing in on women voters.
Reviewing the latest analysis from his team, Penn's read was that "if 10 percent more women came, that would really give her almost all the major talked about swing states."
Penn, of course, is too savvy not to keep in mind that the cameras are watching, so of course, the best spin is put forward. He says he believes that Clinton is the most electable candidate in the general election and is leading the race. In fact, according to the latest polls, Clinton is running neck and neck with the Republican front-runners.
Penn's philosophy when it comes to this election is that Americans should not focus on what he calls the "elites obsession with the personality of the candidate" but on the issues that affect the average voter. That was the basis of Hillary Clinton's successful Senate campaign in New York and is central to her presidential race.
But not all of Penn's client's have taken his advice.
While working for Al Gore in 2000, Penn said they had a fundamental disagreement. "He thought there was Clinton fatigue. I thought there was Clinton nostalgia but not fatigue. I think that was his view at the time, and that was my view."
"I think when you look at it, when you look back, I think that had he embraced the policies of President Clinton and embraced the President Clinton who'd been with him for so many years, I think it might have made the 1 percent difference," Penn said.
The 1 percent difference is at the heart of Penn's new book, "Microtrends," in which he identifies 75 micro groups inside the United States. "The old view of America was we had a melting pot. It was all about so many different cultures coming together into one, and I think now it is a more niching of America," he said. "People are making many more choices in these lifestyles, and they're being put together not just by class, and not just by race, but by these choices that really sit at the core of the microtrends."
Penn said that if you have a movement that approaches 1 percent, you have something that is small, yet potentially very powerful. He said that "Today 1 percent is a best-selling book, the best-selling car there is -- it is a dynamic movement." Not all the trends are political or even serious: cougars, unisexuals, second-home buyers, do-it-yourself doctors, Protestant Hispanics and old new dads are among his microtrends.
Penn is an old new dad himself. In addition to three older children from a previous marriage, Penn has a 5-year-old daughter with wife Nancy Jacobson, who fundraises for Hillary Clinton. He credits Jacobson with helping him shed his old nickname from his White House days, when he was affectionately called Schlumpy. He still retains some of his rumpled professor style and readily admits to wearing two different shoes for a meeting in the oval office.
"I've never been one to, you know, to put good dress above letting the substance out, and so for me sometimes, I just get so wrapped up with what I'm doing and in this case, I can't remember why I wound up with too different shoes, and another time, I took the president's coat on the way out, only to discover out later it was his."
Surely the president gave his pollster a pass.
Penn rejects the idea that Sen. Clinton's gradual shift to an antiwar position -- a movement that's in line with public opinion -- reveals a close reliance on polls. He said that his serving as the senator's pollster and chief strategist doesn't mean that there is necessarily a hard connection between the two roles.
"I think people confuse those judgments with the tough judgments that candidates like Sen. Clinton make on the hard issues, and I think she's out there every day talking about ending the Iraq War, about having universal health care and ending our dependence on foreign oil," he said.
Penn has taken some heat for the many hats he is wearing these days. In addition to his work for Clinton, he is the CEO of Burson Marstellar. The PR giant represents Cinta Corp., which is resisting pressure to unionize its work force, a position that many union heads have openly criticized.
But Penn spends most of his time on the Clinton campaign. He averages about five hours of sleep a night and lives on Diet Coke. He said that the intensity of this campaign has only started. "You never get through one of these primary campaigns without a near-death experience," he said. "It's never happened. There have been nothing but steady days, but we take nothing for granted."