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Dave Beattie did something strange his junior year of high school: He ran for public office.
At 18, he was elected to the Vestel, N.Y., Board of Education. And as one of the pre-eminent Democratic pollsters in the country, Beattie has won a lot of elections since.
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) calls him "an under-the-radar secret weapon" for Democrats, and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) relies on him to poll for his battleground re-election campaign. Based in Florida but known in political circles around the country for his sound polling, work ethic and keen analytical eye, he is the president of Hamilton Campaigns, a Democratic polling and political consulting firm.
In many respects, Beattie was a regular teenager growing up in small-town New York, not far the Pennsylvania border. Described as charismatic and self-confident, he played sports and hated studying German.
His swim team, after raising half of the money necessary for upgrading the team's pool, went to the local board of education to ask for the other half. The request was rejected, and Beattie started attending meetings. Six months later, he ran for a spot on the board.
"I don't know what the heck got into him to do that," said Mike Nuckols, Beattie's best friend during high school. "I think he thought he could do it."
Nuckols, who remains close to Beattie, remembered how even in his first campaign for school board, Beattie eyed the political landscape.
"I know this is nuts, but even then, he ... was looking at the numbers, the voting register and all that stuff. I remember him really paying attention to that," Nuckols recalled. "And I think that was part of the decision: 'I think I can win this. I think I can win.'"
Beattie, now 41 and married with two kids, said it was that experience in high school that propelled him to a career at the nexus of politics and polling.
"I'm odd in that when I went to college, I knew that I wanted to be a pollster," he said. "The process of running, targeting where people lived, figuring out who to talk to ... was really what got me involved, interested in politics and what made me know I wanted to do polling."
He took lots of statistics classes during his undergraduate years at George Washington University, but instead of going to work on Capitol Hill, he went south with Robin, his then-girlfriend and current wife.
"Knowing that I didn't want to be 23 and working on the Hill and self-important because I was one of four people in the world that understood our soybean policy or whatever it was," he said, we "went down and lived in the [Florida] Keys after college for a couple of years."
Beattie worked on a boat in the Bahamas and then, after getting a Coast Guard license, was a boat captain and scuba-diving instructor in Key Largo, Fla.
"He was one of the most outgoing, energetic instructors we've ever had, and that was 15 years ago that he was here," recalled Rob Haff, co-owner of Sea Dwellers Dive Center. "He just loved his job. What we do is fun. People are instructors because it is fun," he said. "Most people that do it enjoy their job, but not like Dave. He lived for it. He loved every single minute of it when he got in here."
When he started his political career in high school, Beattie was as a Republican.
"There's an important role for government and that is to protect people from bullies," he said. "What I often kid Republicans with is: I switched parties in '96 because I believe in fiscal responsibility and personal freedom, so I couldn't be a Republican."
After some time in the Florida Keys, Beattie went to graduate school (where he first registered as a Democrat) and studied with the legendary pollster Bill Hamilton.
Hamilton offered him a job in coastal Fernandina Beach, Fla.
"He knew polling was what I wanted to do," Beattie said. "One thing led to another, and I've been here ever since."
Interviews with Beattie's clients, winners and losers, in Florida and around the country, reveal a pollster who's serious about his work but remains as enthusiastic about politics as he was about diving. Another theme that emerges: Beattie's character.
"He has a great deal of integrity," former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) said. "David Beattie never has asked me to change the way I thought about anything. But he's challenged the way I talked about how I thought."
Ritter explained that through extensive polling and focus groups, Beattie and the campaign came up with five different groups of Colorado voters that would go to the polls in 2006. They zoomed in on two types of independents who could sway the vote: government pragmatists, who wanted a leaner, better government; and moral pragmatists, who wanted the same thing but also cared about social issues.
"I've never seen anybody do as good a job since then, or even before then, of thinking about how you have a message that resonates with the people you actually need to win statewide," Ritter said.
Ritter won by 17 points in 2006 but chose not to run for re-election in 2010.
Wasserman Schultz, who has worked with Beattie since she was in the state Legislature, noted his cool under fire. "Campaigns are pretty stressful environments," she said. "Having someone who is as levelheaded as he is, someone who doesn't always sound the alarm bells and push the panic button, someone who can really give you good advice on when it's time to be concerned," is essential.
And even though the Sunshine State is a politically polarized place, Beattie has a lot of fans on the other side of the aisle.
"He has a very, very strong and legitimate following here as a tremendously talented individual," Florida GOP strategist Adam Goodman said. "My only regret about Dave is that he's not a Republican."