Of all the epithets that one can throw at a politician, “poll-driven” and “focus-group tested” might be the meanest. It’s a little more polite than calling him a flip-flopping, finger-in-the-wind opportunist, but it amounts to the same thing. Why, we voters plead, can’t candidates just say what they believe rather than what they think we want to hear?
Count on Mark Mellman ’78 to defend his profession. Mellman is a pollster and focus-group user, one of the most successful political consultants in the business, and he suggests, only half in jest, that whoever first articulated that line of political attack probably relied on polls and focus groups to determine that it worked. Kidding aside, he thinks the tricks of his trade are not tricks at all, but tools for helping candidates on a limited budget reach voters with a limited attention span.
“Our role is to say, who is this candidate and what do they believe?” he explains. “They are a lot of things, and they believe a lot of things. Our job is to figure out which are the one or two things that, if we repeat them over and over again, are most likely to get them the most votes. Our job is not to create candidates but to take candidates who are multi-faceted and narrow their focus.”
More to the point, he adds, pollsters “are reflecting what people are telling us. And I think it’s valuable for politicians to know what people really think.”
Mellman is president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Mellman Group, which offers its clients “research-based strategy.” When it comes to electoral politics, Mellman works only for Democrats, unions, and liberal interest groups, though he has plenty of counterparts across the aisle. (The firm also does market research for corporate clients.) “Partisan” is another dirty word in politics, but Mellman defends that, too.
“People are in our business because we believe in something,” he insists. “I believe in the ideals and ideas of the Democratic Party, and there are people who are my friends who believe just as strongly in the ideals of the Republican Party. The way in which those agendas get enacted or not in our system depends on who gets elected. So our goal is to help people get elected because we care about where this country goes.”
Over his 30 years in the business, Mellman’s record for getting people elected is very good. His client list includes 21 past or present senators, 26 House members, eight governors, and dozens of other state and local officials. In his most recent race this fall he helped Scott Stringer thwart Elliot Spitzer ’81’s comeback bid in the Democratic primary for New York City comptroller. Alumni solidarity, if there is such a thing, ends at the ballot box.
Mellman has received a lot of credit for the Democrats holding their Senate majority in 2010 (when he helped Harry Reid to a come-from-behind victory in Nevada) and 2012 (when he helped Heidi Heitkamp pull off one of the biggest upsets of the night in North Dakota). A current client, Alison Lundergan Grimes, is challenging GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, making it likely that Mellman will have a lot to say about whether Democrats hold the Senate in 2014, as well.
Statistician and writer Nate Silver cited Mellman, along with CNN and Grove Insight, as the most accurate in predicting last year’s presidential race. Last November, the Doonesbury comic strip called him one of the “princes of polling” as it poked fun at a “gang of angry low-information voters.” The American Association of Political Consultants recently named Mellman Pollster of the Year, for the third time. The AAPC also honored Mellman in 2013 for best international campaign (in Israel) and best campaign for a ballot initiative (to expand casino gambling in Maryland, which passed).
As those awards suggest, Mellman branches far beyond the marquee races. He increasingly takes on work overseas. Mellman has worked on legislative campaigns in more than half a dozen countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Spain, and Uruguay, and counts the mayor of Tirana, Albania, and the presidents of Colombia and Costa Rica as satisfied clients. Last January, he helped the Yesh Atid party gain 19 seats in the Israeli parliamentary elections and become the second-largest party in the Knesset by focusing on issues of concern to the middle class. One Israeli website described him as “the kingmaker’s kingmaker.”