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Pollsters: Lobbying’s Next Frontier

They wield uncommon clout on Capitol Hill and possess just about every other quality a well-paying client wants in a lobbyist: the Member’s trust, political acumen and the power to persuade. They sometimes attain consigliere status with lawmakers, gaining entry to strategy meetings of the highest order.

But the city’s legions of political pollsters are still not lobbyists — at least not as the law defines them.

Yet they are increasingly tapped by some of the country’s biggest corporations and associations to back up a Congressional lobbying strategy with cold, hard numbers and to help companies gain another path of access to Members. Even pollsters who trek up to the Capitol to present their findings are free from the burdens of disclosure and the restrictions of the new lobbying reform act that now governs K Street.

Corporate and association executives say that with the stricter ethics law, the best-connected pollsters — both Democratic and Republican — will become an even more appealing commodity in the ever-increasing business of trying to get Congress to do what you want.

“It’s a loophole in the lobbying law,” said one Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist for a Fortune 100 corporation. “You get people who are close to Members but never have to register to lobby,” added the lobbyist. “This is the next frontier of how to get around lobbying reform.”

And in today’s lobby world, where K Streeters no longer can woo staffers or Members with lunches or gifts, hard data matters even more, said Public Affairs Council President Doug Pinkham. “If I can convince a staffer that my point of view makes sense, then it’s not just taking people to lunch,” he said.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who helped mastermind the Democratic takeover of Congress as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, said pollsters and Members develop bonds that are among the strongest in politics.

“When you’ve gone through a number of very tight elections with them ... you’ve seen their [judgment] play out,” he said. “Some are better at large macro-thematic politics. Some have a better forte for individual races. Some are good in the South, others on marginal seats.”

Emanuel said he talks regularly to Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner — who also is his landlord and a friend — and to a half-dozen other pollsters, including John Anzalone of Anzalone Liszt Research in Montgomery, Ala., who polled for the DCCC.

Some other revered pollsters on either side of the aisle who have the trust of Congress’ most influential Members include Democrat Mark Mellman of The Mellman Group; Burson-Marsteller’s Mark Penn, an adviser to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.); and Republicans David Winston of The Winston Group (also a Roll Call contributing writer) and Bill McInturff and his colleagues at Public Opinion Strategies, to name a few.

Mellman, whose Web site lists his core business as representing such politicians as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), recently teamed up with McInturff on a study of voters’ opinions on automobile fuel-efficiency standards for the Pew Campaign for Fuel Efficiency. They presented their findings on Capitol Hill and to reporters.

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