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Public Opinion Strategies Turns 20, Reflects on Polling Industry

Framed mementos of past campaigns line the walls of Public Opinion Strategies’ headquarters, an understated brick building just off King Street in Old Town Alexandria.

Now in its 20th year, the Republican polling firm offers only a limited sample of its victories on its walls, but its influence is nonetheless clear.

One is a chart tracking Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) surge in the polls in the waning weeks of her first Congressional election in 2006, when she was still just an attorney and state Senator from Stillwater.

Another is a January 2010 Washington Post opinion piece written by partners Neil Newhouse and Glen Bolger, shortly after they helped secure victories for Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. “Well, that didn’t take long, did it?” they wrote of the GOP rejuvenation a year after the Democratic landslide of 2008.

With 72 House Members and 19 Senators on its current client list, POS has grown over the past two decades into the largest Republican polling firm in the country. It has given founding partners Newhouse, Bolger, Bill McInturff and Gene Ulm a front-seat view of the evolution of campaign polling in the age of 24/7 news cycles and the need for instant results.

Times They Are A-Changing

One of the biggest changes in the polling industry in recent years is the proliferation of cheaper autodial surveys, done by firms such as SurveyUSA and Public Policy Polling. The POS partners, however, said that automated polling data make what traditional firms provide that much more valuable.

“Those push-button polls can do a good job of telling you who’s ahead and who’s behind,” Newhouse said during an interview at the firm’s office. “But what we pride ourselves on is when a campaign is trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B — and the message is the necessary way to do that — that’s what we do well.”

Bolger added that autodial polling “can never do the kind of in-depth message testing that we do with our work. It doesn’t have the same depth of targeting, cross-tabs and everything.”

Along with an influx of new firms and autodial polling, technology has affected the way business is done in the survey research world as well.

“The turnaround, the productivity per employee, being able to get surveys in and out of the field quickly with less hassle, all computerized — it’s just made it much faster,” Newhouse said.

The four partners founded POS in 1991 after leaving the Wirthlin Group, where they learned the industry from Ronald Reagan’s pollster, Richard Wirthlin.

Newhouse recounted days of trekking into the Wirthlin Group’s data-processing room and flipping through big sheets of paper to read Reagan’s approval rating and generic ballot numbers. On Fridays late in the cycle, they would order pizza and watch VHS tapes of compiled political ads from across the country — a service once provided by the Hotline.

“Our business, like any other, has been caught up in the technology change,” McInturff said. “Our business is being transformed because of cellphone-onlys, lack of cooperation. Those issues are substantial.”

As the technology changes, so do the practitioners in the polling world, Ulm said, with academics once dominating the business. “Most of the people now in this business, their backgrounds are politics,” he said. “They arrived at being researchers after being practitioners.”

Going forward, McInturff said, “tracking social media” will be the new wave. “Instead of asking questions, you’re sort of hearing and tracking opinion.”

‘Eat What You Kill’

Spotting trends and moving quickly to sign clients is important with firms such as the Tarrance Group and McLaughlin & Associates nipping at POS’ heels.

The Tarrance Group has a long stable of Members on its client list as well, including 53 Representatives and eight Senators. Tarrance’s Ed Goeas and the POS partners said they hold a mutual respect for each other, and both joked that GOP consultants get along much better than Democrats.

“Sometimes we go against each other in primaries, but more often than not we’re both fighting for the majority of Congress and for Republicans,” Goeas said. “And I think we respect each other for that.”

“We have personal relationships,” McInturff said of the GOP consulting community. “It’s just harder to take a sledgehammer to somebody when you’ve been to their wedding.”

Even some Democratic pollsters praised the firm and its principals.

“POS is a worthy adversary and a trusted collaborator,” said Fred Yang of Hart Research Associates, who collaborates on the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll with McInturff.

There is competition within the firm as well, where pay is linked to how many clients one brings in.

“At our firm, your compensation is based on, you eat what you kill,” Newhouse said. “And it’s worked very well. It’s sort of the Republican way of business.”

The partners are wedded financially to each other. After leaving Wirthlin with all of their own clients, they wrote a partners agreement that would eliminate that possibility at POS. “If you leave the company you get $10 per handshake. That’s it,” Newhouse said.

Bigger Is Better

With 12 partners now — located in California, Colorado, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia — POS is three to four times bigger than the partners ever imagined, thanks in large part to the long list of corporate and issue group clients on its roster.

Public policy research is now about half of the firm’s business, compared with about 20 percent when POS started polling for the health insurance industry in 1991.

On the political side, they not only poll the horse-race numbers, ad testing and potential messaging, but the partners also personally conduct an extensive number of focus groups to round out their research and provide strategic recommendations for candidates.

As they poll campaigns from the city council to presidential levels, the firm has a six-figure national research budget during election years that is paid for out of pocket. All of that, along with the collective experience of the 12 partners, is an asset when pitching new clients, they said.

“We’re bringing to the table basically every single campaign we’ve ever worked on,” Newhouse said. “There is not a single thing that could happen in a campaign that one of us haven’t seen someplace.”

Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) January 2010 victory was “the longest three weeks of my life,” said Newhouse, who is now polling for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign-in-waiting. “We knew something that nobody else knew, and we only shared it with the campaign.”

Ulm’s top campaigns include now-Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ (R-Ga.) come-from-behind victory over then-Sen. Max Cleland (D) in 2002, and Bolger’s include Sen. John Thune’s (R-S.D.) upset of then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in 2004.

Wirthlin’s Influence

The partners credit Wirthlin, who helped guide Reagan’s political career for two decades, for much of their success. Wirthlin passed away in March.

“We’re enjoying our 20 years, but all of us owe an enormous debt to Richard and have an appreciation for his skills,” McInturff said. “I don’t think any of us think we would be here without those years at the Wirthlin Group at Richard’s hand.”

Newhouse and McInturff originally negotiated an agreement with Wirthlin to be his firm’s in-house political arm. Public Opinion Strategies would have remained in the Wirthlin offices and used its call centers, and Wirthlin would have received a quarter of the new firm’s profits.

But at the eleventh hour, Wirthlin unexpectedly backed out. He told them they would thank him later.

“Dick was right,” Ulm said. “We do thank him for it.”

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