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.
But Mellman, like every pollster interviewed for this article, said he did not cross the line into lobbying. None is a registered lobbyist.
“I’m very clear on my role. I don’t lobby,” Mellman said. “When we do public opinion polls we’re happy to share an accurate, forthright analysis of that data. But I don’t lobby.”
Mellman’s firm also surveyed 800 seniors to see what they thought about proposals to cut payments for the Medicare Advantage program to help fund the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. United Health commissioned the poll.
The information, including United Health’s sponsorship of the poll, widely was circulated on the Hill and among the health insurance lobby because it showed that nearly half of the voters polled put cuts to Medicare as among their top worries, second only to the Iraq War.
That poll found that while many seniors are unfamiliar with the Medicare Advantage program, they still opposed cutting it by a 45-point margin.
“Sometimes Members want to take a particular position, but they’re fearful of the political consequences,” Mellman said. “But sometimes the polling shows they have nothing to fear and can give them what they need to defend their position and mollify their critics.”
On the fuel-economy debate, Mellman said his firm polled pickup-truck drivers to assuage those who said drivers of trucks would not want higher gas mileage standards. But it turned out, he said, that pickup-truck drivers not only favor higher standards but did so “to an even greater degree than the public as a whole.”
While the political work is typically a pollster’s bread and butter, some specialize more in issue advocacy, with a little campaign work on the side.
Whit Ayres, a longtime pollster with Ayres, McHenry & Associates, said that 10 years ago, three-quarters of his business was polling for political candidates, with one-quarter for corporate and association clients. Now, that ratio has flipped: 75 percent of his business is issue advocacy polling.
Still, Ayres is quick to point out that his firm does not lobby. But lobbying organizations like his clients America’s Health Insurance Plans and the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association offer more stability than political campaigns.
This Congress, GOPer Ayres also has worked for Environmental Defense, surveying opinions on carbon legislation to show that Republican candidates “can reach out to voters who might not already be in their base with efforts to support cutting carbon,” Ayres said.
Many of the pollsters with corporate clients said they do not use their pull with Members or staff to set up Hill meetings or urge lawmakers to take specific positions. Still, the data they collect often is specific to individual Congressional districts or states — and presented with the express purpose of influencing certain Members.
The Public Affairs Council’s Pinkham said polling can be a natural extension of the lobbyist’s role to present data on a legislative issue. But he said pollsters should be wary of trading on their political clients or doctoring their numbers so they are more in line with what they believe a lawmaker might want to hear.
“The moment you’re viewed by a Member of Congress as having sort of sold out to a specific cause, and if there’s any suspicion about the accuracy of your numbers, frankly you’d lose the very lucrative campaign business, too,” he said.
Of course, lurking behind any corporate-commissioned poll is the knotty problem of a potential conflict of interest between what’s in a company’s best financial interest and what’s best for a Member.
Several pollsters said that to avoid such a situation, they make clear the poll’s sponsorship upfront when presenting data to Members or staff. And they try to keep from crossing the line of actually encouraging Members or staff to take a certain position.
“These Members are savvy enough to see a biased question when it pops up,” said one pollster, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity. “Once people perceive that you may have kind of fudged things, you never get that back.”
Another pollster, who also did not want his name used in print, conceded that in some political strategy sessions with Members or staff, it is possible to bring up information the pollster has gleaned from specific polls done on behalf of paying corporate clients and not mention the client relationship. “You’re in a meeting and somebody says, ‘What do we do about X,’ and you sometimes cite a number, not necessarily providing all the documentation but you know what you know and you sit in meetings and are sometimes called upon,” this pollster said.
When it comes to disclosure rules, Brett Kappel, a lobbyist and campaign finance lawyer at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, said companies or groups that use polling data to persuade Members or staff should report the money spent on those polls in their lobbying disclosures. But they don’t have to disclose the name of the polling company, he said. And pollsters themselves are under no obligation to report their Hill activities unless they advocated a particular position and spent more than 20 percent of their time for that client doing so.
“In order to qualify as a lobbyist who’s required to register, you have to be paid to lobby,” Kappel said. “If you present your findings to Congress, that’s probably going to be one tiny little part of the job for a company that is hired to do polling.”
As for working with pollsters who are plugged in with specific Members, Kappel said it’s always useful for lobbyists to bring on board “influentials,” someone a Member respects and trusts.
When Ayres presents the results of a poll on Capitol Hill, he typically will give a PowerPoint presentation to a Member and staff specialist. The price of a poll can vary widely, with bargain basement rates of $6,000 to top-of-the-line at $250,000.
“The people we will talk to on the Hill are the people who are important to the corporation or association,” Ayres said. “Sometimes those [Members] are our clients and frequently they are not. We have definitely made it a practice that we avoid lobbying people we help to get elected. We don’t do lobbying.”
A Critical Guide
While polling data may not be the key to Members’ or staffers’ decisions on legislative issues or political strategy, pollsters and lobbyists armed with such data often find a receptive audience, if only because Members are intimately familiar with polling jargon. But they can be a critical audience as well.
Alex Vogel, a lobbyist with Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, said that when he was on the Hill as a top aide for then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), he viewed polls somewhat skeptically.
“Sometimes it was extremely valuable to get a sense of where the issue was in people’s consciousness,” he said. “I think they can be really valuable when you need their data. But I didn’t react terribly well if somebody came in and said you need to do this because of this poll.”
One senior Congressional Democratic staffer said that not everyone puts a lot of stake in polls, but anyone on Capitol Hill understands their value as a guide. “Your audience is Members and staff who live on polls, so you’re actually presenting your information to them in a medium they understand and are trained to be able to read,” this aide said.
In rare cases, lobbying firms themselves have polling units, including Glover Park Group and Dutko Worldwide. Neither firm does much, if any, political polling.
“The lobbying business has really changed a lot. It’s become a lot more sophisticated and competitive, and you need every kind of tool you can find,” said Gary Andres, who runs Dutko Research. “Polling and research has been a really effective advocacy tool. We use it a lot for background work for testing messages, to see which messages work well, to gauge the political implications of doing one thing versus another.”
Andres said Dutko Research also uses polling to help bolster a corporation’s brand on Capitol Hill. Take client Erickson Retirement Communities. Erickson wants legislation to stimulate the development of electronic medical records. Andres and his four-person team at Dutko created questions to ask voters what they know about the topic and how concerned they were about privacy.
“Then we organized a little conference on the Hill where we invited legislative assistants and committee staff who handled this, and we unveiled the poll,” Andres said. “It was a nice event, the way we weaved the polling information into it and used it as a way to brand this company as a thought leader on this issue.”