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Hillary Clinton's Guru Speaks

Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who are shaping American politics. This week, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talked with Hillary Clinton's chief strategist and longtime pollster Mark Penn about his new book, and the public opinion trends that will define next year's campaign. In Microtrends, you discuss 75 different demographic trends. But what are the real implications of the fact that, for example, 57 percent of journalists are women. It's very interesting but do you think it affects how they cover politics?

Mark Penn: Well, I don't know if it affects how they cover politics. But one of the things I point out is that there are a lot of word-oriented professions, where women are making it increasingly as a career. Women are the majority in law schools, they're the majority in college. They're the majority in the media. They're the majority in public relations.

And so, sometimes that may provide some stories that maybe wouldn't have been there in the old days, when it was primarily a male-oriented profession. But what's very interesting is that these are some of the professions that they're choosing more often than others. So when you see data that says, as you describe in the book, that ten million Latinos are Protestant and 90 percent of those are Pentecostal, how does that affect your campaign's message to Latino voters?

Mark Penn: Well, this is a non-political book. And it actually does not review differences in how you communicate. What it does show is that almost a quarter of Latinos are, in fact, Protestant. And that the greatest growth in the number of new Protestants coming to America now is from Mexico.

And I think, quite interestingly, it showed that the swing Latino voters who moved to Bush were overwhelmingly Protestant Hispanics, where he was successful last time in getting up to 56 percent of the vote among that group. You point out that voters with under $100,000 in income focus more on issues, and over $100,000 they focus more on character and personality. So do you think the media has a kind of elite bias in terms of what they cover politically?

Mark Penn: I point out in the book that the eggheads are becoming jugheads, and the jugheads are becoming eggheads. Meaning that elites are increasingly separated from the kinds of struggles that working and middle class voters are feeling. And therefore, they are much more impressionable. They seem much more concerned about personality, who people like.

Whereas working and middle class voters are much more educated than ever before. They have greater access to information through the internet. And they are much more concerned about the issues that affect their lives and the lives of their families. And if, as you say, "swing is still king," and voters in the middle really do make the difference, do you think President Bush would have still won in 2004 had he not had that extraordinary base turnout?

Mark Penn: Well, it's interesting. In 2004, he had a strong base turnout, but the Democrats also had a strong base turnout. You'll see that the number of younger voters moved up to 17 percent, and that the real race was decided among women, many of them aged 50 to 64, who were very concerned about security, and Latinos, particularly the Protestant Latinos, and those switches really determined the outcome of the race. Whereas the improvement in both the Democratic and Republican bases tended to cancel themselves out. So what lessons does that teach you for 2008?

Mark Penn: Well, the swing is still king, and that there are a large number of voters who are looking to have the most competent, qualified president. And increasingly, they see Senator Clinton as exactly that choice, which I think is an important reason why she has been moving up both in the primary polls and in all the general election polls. Senator Obama seems to be starting to engage on that topic. He said he actually has more experience than Senator Clinton, because he spent more time in elective office. How do voters respond to that?

Mark Penn: Well, voters overwhelmingly see Senator Clinton as the one with the strength and experience to be president. And it's overwhelming in the surveys that I see, that they're not accepting the idea that Senator Obama has the same kind of experience.

I think we've seen more importantly in real time, differences that made a big impression on voters, where they were both asked a similar question about what they would do in complicated foreign affairs and other matters. Their answers showed a real time difference in strength, knowledge, wisdom, and experience. Do you think the Oprah Winfrey endorsement of Senator Obama will actually have an effect, unlike most endorsements, which tend not to matter?

Mark Penn: I'm sure the endorsement will help him raise funds. And we all love to get great endorsements. But I don't think it will be a substantial help either way in his vote-getting campaign. Turning a bit to some of the news from this week, does the public like a message from General Petraeus that they don't like from President Bush? Is it different coming from him?

Mark Penn: Well, General Petraeus is a distinguished general. But so far, the public feels very strongly that it's time to start bringing home troops from Iraq. And the various polls that I've seen from the news media are showing that they're not changing their minds on that. Did your campaign learn anything from the Hsu donation controversy?

Mark Penn: Well, the campaign has returned not only his money, but the money he raised. And it's putting in another level of vetting to try to ensure that things like this never happen again. When you hear Republicans say that Hillary is the only candidate who will really energize their base, what's your response to that?

Mark Penn: Well, first of all, I think they're looking for a Republican candidate to energize their base, and they haven't found one. And perhaps they're admitting that. I think that the experience with Senator Clinton is that she won two landslide elections. And I think the likely experience is that she will reach out and bring over a tremendous number of Democratic, independent, and some Republican voters, especially Republican women, over to her side.

And I think she has the potential to really expand the voting base in the country. Because I think the first woman president as a possibility will generate a tremendous number of new voters who haven't been much interested in politics before, coming in to vote for Hillary Clinton for the first time. President Clinton won in 1992 and 1996 with well over 300 electoral votes. Obviously, Al Gore and John Kerry were less successful. Can you think of particular states where Senator Clinton would expand the appeal of Democrats?

Mark Penn: The polls right now are showing her running very strong nationally, and the state by state polls show her even or ahead in places like Ohio and Florida, which would be some of the biggest prizes. I think she has a very strong base in Arkansas. I believe that both Southwestern states, and also Iowa, are very good states for her.

And just today [Wednesday], there's a poll out from Rasmussen showing her ahead of the Republicans in Virginia. So the polls are coming back now from all sorts of states that people previously thought she could not win and show that because people are focusing on her strength and experience to be president, and on her message of change, that's reaching right across states, whether they're South, North, East or West.

Mark Penn serves as Worldwide President and CEO of Burson-Marsteller, a global PR firm, and president of the polling shop Penn, Schoen, and Berland, which he began in 1975 as an undergraduate at Harvard. Penn has worked on more than two dozen political campaigns in the U.S., Latin America, and Europe--including for President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Penn won the Pollster of the Year Award from the American Association of Political Consultants in 1996 and 2000--and has served as Senator Clinton's chief strategist since 1999.
By Brian Goldsmith
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