Trending Toward Inanity
Mark Penn’s new book, Microtrends, is so epically awful that it could take the entire polling industry down with it
If you wanted to ruin the political career of Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s chief pollster and strategist, here would be one way to do it: First, create some sort of artifact bearing his name that you could use to tank his reputation. A book would do perfectly. Title it something buzz-wordy and superficial, like Microtrends, though perhaps that’s too heavy-handed. Fill it with vapid koans, like “small is the new big” and “the biggest movements in America today are small.” To make it seem authentic, you’d want to ape Penn’s long-standing affection for combining demographic salami-slicing with cutesy-naming (this is the man who foisted “Soccer Moms” upon our weary lexicon), making each short chapter an exposition of ever-more absurd groups – think “Archery Moms,” “Old New Dads,” and “Ardent Amazons.” Finally, assert their importance through wild and empirically unsupported speculations. That last would be the key: You’d want the methodology so wild and slipshod, so transparently flawed, that no one would trust the analyst ever again.
Astonishingly, Penn himself has done exactly this. His new book Microtrends is so bad that the question – in a fair world – isn’t whether it will destroy his own reputation, but whether it is so epically awful as to take the entire polling industry down with it.
First, a bit of full disclosure: Unlike everybody else in Washington, I have never met Mark Penn. This, I am assured, is to my enduring discredit, as he’s apparently a lovely individual, and if I only knew him, I would understand that his protection of a union-busting division within Burson-Marsteller, the PR firm of which he is the CEO, isn’t evidence of anti-union feelings at all. Nor is Penn’s ceaseless advocacy for a cautious, hawkish, pro-corporate, don’t-rock-the-boat Democratic Party a function of his beliefs, corporate background or clients. Instead, it’s merely “The Numbers.” Indeed, nothing Penn says or does can be questioned, because he’s just there to give us The Numbers. His personal thoughts are immaterial.
At the same time, his personal thoughts matter. As the Washington Post recently reported: “In the four months since Clinton officially became a candidate, Penn has consolidated his power, according to advisers close to the campaign, taking increasing control of the operation. Armed with voluminous data that he collects through his private polling firm, Penn has become involved in virtually every move Clinton makes, with the result that the campaign reflects the chief strategist as much as the candidate.” Even there, though, the Penn mystique persists: Penn’s power, we’re told, comes from his “voluminous data,” not his opinions. To argue with Penn is to argue with The Numbers. And you’re not against Numbers, are you?
That’s the Penn defense, and he and his friends have long stuck to it. “Mark is somebody who is very, very comfortable with quantification,” enthused Doug Schoen, his polling partner of over 30 years. “He is very comfortable with numbers.” It is this reputation that, so far as I can tell, Mark Penn has written Microtrends to dispel. Unlike most pollsters, Penn never releases his raw numbers, only his analysis. So we must take it on faith that his methodology is rigorous, his polls accurate and his interpretations fair. This book is our first opportunity to observe, at length, how adroitly Penn handles raw data. And the answer is stunning, even to a doubter like me. Mark Penn cannot handle numbers. If this book were turned in as the final to an entry-level statistics class, Penn would not only be failed, but the professor might well retire in shame.
I first flipped through Microtrends while at the YearlyKos convention, and Penn, astonishingly, seemed to comprehend the importance of the loosely connected, grassroots-driven, progressive movement’s flowering. “I suspect the lefty boom will bring a surge in the promotion of sheer creative energy,” Penn writes, “driven by an idea that is at the heart of this book – that small groups of people, sharing common experiences, can increasingly be drawn together to rally for their interests.” I was shocked – Penn was speaking admirably of “lefties,” not trying to recast them as moderates, not trying to write them out of the party? He was endorsing open-source politics, rather than a top-down structure? I had misjudged the man!
I read on. Penn was talking about actual lefties – people who are born left-handed. Increasingly grim, I absorbed the first hard blows of Penn’s interpretative technique: “More lefties,” he enthuses, “could mean more military innovation: Famous military leaders from Charlemagne to Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar to Napoleon – as well as Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf – were left-handed.” He uses the same thunderingly awful logic to argue that we’ll see more art and music greats, more famous criminals, more great comedians, more “executive greatness,” and better tennis and basketball players.
This is what statisticians – or anyone who has taken a statistics class – call a “correlation/causation error.” It is not enough to cherrypick a couple famed military leaders, notice that they’re lefties and assume that something intrinsic to their handedness caused their tactical genius. It is not enough to say that past cultures discouraged left-handedness and use that as a stand-in for discouraging creativity of all sorts. To say that Bill Gates is right-handed does not suggest that a greater proportion of right-handed people would mean more Bill Gateses. For a professional pollster to imply that correlation equals causation is like a firefighter trying to put out flames by tossing a toaster into the blaze – it bespeaks a complete unfamiliarity with the relevant techniques.
What’s more amazing is this: A page earlier, Penn argues that the rise in lefties has nothing to do with there being more lefties, and everything to do with more permissive parenting. In other words, where children used to be trained out of left-handedness, now parents “shrug their shoulders, saying it’s okay.” So not only does Penn fail to prove that lefties are genetically different in some important way, he also suggests that the gene pool is no different, and that there are as many of them around now as always. It’s a fallacy atop an error built around something that isn’t happening.
This isn’t an isolated example. In a chapter called “Aspiring Snipers,” Penn explains, “It’s the rare moment when a poll stops me in my tracks and reorients my understanding of things.” One such poll was conducted last fall, when Bendixen and Associates asked 601 young Californians what they’d be doing in 10 years. About 1 percent – so, a handful – said they’d be snipers. Certainly, that’s an odd reply. But Penn never mentions that the Bendixen poll had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4 percent–four being a larger number than one. Additionally, it’s meaningless without further study. Anyone in the age bracket would attribute it to video games, or snipers being, let’s admit it, quite cool. Yet Penn, based on no follow-up interviews, detects a “new patriotism,” and a desire “to master complex mathematical formulas like how distance or wind might affect the path of the bullet.” This simply isn’t professional work. (It is bitter, though. Penn concludes the chapter by complaining, “Ask anyone in politics and they will agree – they face ‘snipers’ every day who are trying to find one flinch, one out-of-place word to put on Drudge or YouTube.” It takes a special sort of self-regard to compare the danger of being embedded on YouTube to being hunted down in urban warfare.)
Elsewhere, Penn conflates one poll on attitudes toward the religion of Islam with attitudes toward American Muslims. At times, he mixes percentages and absolute values for scare effect, as when he darkly warns that if one-tenth of one percent of our population – 300,000 people – turned to al Qaeda, it would be “more than enough to destabilize our society.” Sometimes he just discards data, as when he conveniently decides to ignore his evidence that churchgoers reject female ministers and speculates that “consensus and compassion may be on the outs right now, but they are bound to make a comeback,” which is all the argument he needs to say “we are also ready for the first female Billy Graham.” And on, and on.
All this is in service of his concept that “microtrends” now govern our world: “It takes 1 percent of people making a dedicated choice – contrary to the mainstream’s choice – to create a movement that can change the world,” Penn writes. Why 1 percent? Who knows? Penn doesn’t stick to it himself. Sometimes, it’s one-tenth of one percent, as in his al Qaeda example, or 10 percent, as with lefties, or sometimes it’s the microtrend of – I kid you not – the tens of millions of Americans who moved to the suburbs in the 20th century. Toward the book’s end, Penn says the “magic of the 1 percent threshold” is that “ten people with bazookas can overcome 1,000 people with picket signs, but they can’t overcome 10,000 people with picket signs.” Chew on that one, grasshopper.
As microchapter after microchapter passed, reviewing this book began to feel like dropping a grenade into a barrel of fish. But Microtrends is illuminating. Pollsters occupy a uniquely powerful space in American political discourse: They bring science to elections. Armed with heaps of raw data, they elevate their opinions into something altogether weightier: Conclusions. When an organization sends out a press release saying the organization is right, it’s ignored. When a pollster sends out a poll showing the electorate agrees, ears in Washington perk up.
The enterprise has always been dodgy. Populist pollsters reliably discover that the electorate thirsts for more populism. Conservative pollsters routinely discover a small government consensus pulsing at the heart of the body politic. When the libertarian Cato Institute commissioned a poll of the electorate, they found – shockingly – that the essential swing vote was made of libertarians. Remarkably, whenever a politician or self-interested institution releases a poll, the results show a symmetry between the attitudes of the pollster’s employer and those of the voters. But Penn’s book shines light on this phenomenon: If he is the pinnacle of his profession, then the profession uses numbers as a ruse – a superficial empiricism that obscures garden-variety hackery. And that’s a trend worth worrying about.