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Why Are You So Smart, Stan Greenberg?

Noah Davis talks to the democratic pollster and political strategist about the over-reliance on numbers, understanding new places, and being really intelligent.
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Stan Greenberg used numbers and intelligence to help get Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, and other political figures elected. The CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and co-founder of Democracy Corps with James Carville and Bob Shrum came into the spotlight during the 1992 Presidential campaign when the Man From Hope took the nation by storm and defeated incumbent George Bush. Greenberg and his "War Room" cohorts fashioned the strategy using polling numbers and focus groups. Two decades later, polling is all the rage in political rhetoric, but Greenberg believes the second part of the equation is missing. There are too many numbers and too much noise, and not enough understanding.

Greenberg, who started his career writing about race relations in the American South and South Africa, recently started working in the country of Mandela and also spends his time assisting campaigns in other parts of the world. We met in a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan and talked about political projects, polling, and power.

When you were growing up, did you feel like you were smarter than the vast majority of people in the room?
No. My brother was the star, both academically and athletically. I was always in the shadow. There were inducements to try to get me to read books. My mother would buy every book. My father was the president of the synagogue, and my mother was president of the sisterhood. We lived right across the street from it, so it was a big part of the educational community. I was pretty advanced going into my Bar Mitzvah and taking over from the cantor, but I stopped immediately after I was done. It was frustrating and disappointing to my parents.

In 11th grade, they created a course called "American Civilization" that cut across all disciplines. My initial reaction was that I wasn't up for it. I tried to get my father to talk to the teachers to get me out of the program, but I realized in the middle of the interview that I was actually interested and challenged by it. That totally changed my relationship to school and to other students because the smartest students were in that class.

By 12th grade, I was hanging out with the smart kids. I don't know how that happened. Some of it was political. We went on a bus trip to the south, and I ended up hanging out with those kids. They were quite active. I was invited to join a progressive Jewish activist group, but my parents wouldn't let me join because they thought there might have been Communists in the organization. And there might have been. [Laughs]

I had never thought about going to an Ivy League school. My brother was the first person in my family to go to college.

My first year in college, I was writing a column for the Miami University paper a couple times a week. I began to excel there.

You did a lot of academic work before you got into the polling side of politics.
The Miami University political science department was really good, and I went to Harvard afterward. I did a Ph.D. and got the top grade on the Ph.D. exam. I went to Yale after three years and started teaching there at a scarily young age. I was 25. I taught for 10 years, up to 1987. I started my company in 1980, but I was teaching at the same time. I was a Guggenheim Fellow, and I wrote a book called Race and State in Capitalist Development. It's very obscure, but there's a cult following. [Laughs] I got engaged in South Africa and ended up being the co-head of Yale's research program for the country. I wrote two further books on South Africa.

I became more and more politically active. I worked on the beginning of the Clinton campaign, and ended up doing the Mandela campaign from the White House.

It seems like you had a pretty unique way of thinking about polling. You were looking into the numbers in a way that many others at the time weren't. Do you think that's fair?
I think that's fair. There are two sides to it. There's that side, and then there's the political project part to it.

I was at Harvard and MIT, and I had some of the best advisers in terms of people who were using advanced math and statistics in polling. At the time, that methodology was controversial within political science. I was being schooled in that. But I was also with people who were studying political economy and political philosophy. I was continually blending those things together. I wrote a book called Politics and Poverty, which came out of my Ph.D. thesis. The methodology was a leadership map. You would talk to people and see who they were influenced by. Then, I went and did in-person interviews with those people who came out of the network. It began with a quantitative survey, but the ultimate product was much more textured. When I did the book, I spent a year going to the five neighborhoods. I lived in them, talked to the people, and tried to get a feel for them.

The other thing that came out of that book was a greater sensitivity for migratory patterns and history. You can't understand the white Appalachian community in Detroit unless you understand the transformation that's happening in Appalachia over a 50-year period. You can't understand the Spanish community in San Jose unless you understand the history of Mexico. I became much more involved in history and trying to understand the context for the numbers.

Thinking about influencers seems pretty ahead of its time.
I shouldn't take credit for it. There was an academic at UCLA who actually constructed it. I was just a graduate student who implemented it and did a study.

How did you get into the polling side of politics?
I'd been involved in the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement. When I became involved electorally, it wasn't because I was a Democrat. It was because that was the route to bring those changes, of stopping the Vietnam War. Ultimately, it became about trying to change the Democratic Party to be a modern party that could represent my values. My political project predates my polling. Polling comes in later as a tool after years of political engagement.

Did you have the theories and then use polling to back those up?
Yes, but if you're good, you learn from what you find.

Are you surprised by how important, or seemingly important, polls have become in the media?
Most polls are mindless. I'm not the only one who thinks that. Any campaign—except, as it turns out, the Romney campaign—knows that. They did really well in their polls. [Laughs] It's all very superficial. There are obvious issues in terms of methodology and bias, but that's less important than the fact that most polls are not very considered. It's not asking about what people really think about, but it drives the coverage. The news coverage tends to be driven by the horse race, and if you look at the content analysis of what gets reported, there's no doubt that the polls get covered. It's usually junk fluctuations, which are totally expected in polling.

"By 12th grade, I was hanging out with the smart kids. I don't know how that happened."

I was really surprised by the basic lack of understanding about what a poll meant during the last election. You published a piece on Democracy Corps a week or so before the election that basically predicted exactly what happened i.e. Nate Silver was exactly right. Were you surprised by the seeming inability of the press to comprehend polling numbers?
It's part of an anti-empiricism that conservatives have built. The media reports climate change like it's a balanced story. The science is devalued. I think polling is evaluated in the same framework. Being a climate-change denier and being a poll-denier became part of the Fox News mindset. I was really just perplexed. I didn't have the slightest doubt about what was going to happen.

But I'm not sure that it matters [that people don't understand polls]. The pundits will go either way, obviously, but I don't think it matters.

I still don't know how the Republicans got it so wrong. They probably made some bad choices, and moved money into states based on those bad choices.

When I came into this through my political project, polling was a tool. And not just polling. It was focus groups. Those had texture in addition to polling. Clinton ran on the forgotten middle class, which was essentially the political project. It was a real project. He believed in it. He saw it during his decade as governor. There was a real program that matched what he was running on. The deficit stuff undermined his ability to get it done, but he believed in it, ran on it, and was elected on it. The polling was a part of it.

I don't know what Obama's project is. He's not part of the civil rights thing. He's part of America emerging as a diverse and multicultural country. He wanted to transcend the dysfunctional politics of Washington, but he doesn't have a traditional politics project. He was the change candidate because he was anti-war. That defined him. But just last week, we asked voters open-ended questions about his economic and health care ideas. Five years into his administration, people don't have a clue. Right now, if you were [Bill] Clinton, you would do polling not to see if health care is popular but to see how you would advance it within the framework of your project. I'm all for Obama having a project, but we're into the second term, we're into the recovery, and there are no new economic or foreign policy advisers. Romney didn't have a project, either. He was trying to win an election.

Polling is out there because the leaders aren't driving a big debate. There actually is a difference between where the Democrats and the Republicans want to take the country, but the Democrats can't articulate it. That means that the numbers have more resonance.

What do you read​?
I'm back into South Africa after a period of pulling back with the ANC, so I'm reading some new books about the country. I'm going into some other countries as well, so I'm reading about them.

Gianna Angelopoulos. She headed the Greek Olympics and I work with her, so I'm reading her book.

When you go into a new country, how do you prepare?
I read. Above all, I read as much history as I can. I'll spend a week meeting with economists, academics, union people, business people, and others. I try to have as much discussion as I can with as many sides of civil society as I can to try to get a feel for the country.

Even for South Africa, a place I've spent a lot of time in my career, I think it's important to re-immerse myself. I'm reading big books of statistics about economic trends, social trends, and land ownership and all kinds of things. But not just polls; listening to people, especially at the outset, is key. You have to have open-ended focus groups. You're not part of the internal political debate. You have a freshness that enables you to hear people. You don't displace the internal people. You work with them. But it opens up the internal debate.

You're a smart guy who I would imagine is frequently in rooms with other very smart people who think of themselves rather highly. Are you ever just stunned by the intellect in the room?
Yeah. [Laughs] We work with McKinsey. After meetings with them, we will look at each other and say, “These are very smart people.” They have clearly cultivated a culture in which smart people are rewarded and encouraged to come.

Most political leaders aren't smart in that way. That's not how you think of them. Mandela is extraordinary. He fills the room. But it's with wisdom, courage, and perspective. He's not that great of a public speaker. His charisma comes from his life.

Clinton really does stand out from almost anybody in terms of intellect.

I watched an interview you did where you told a story about Clinton. He was a night guy, but you needed some time to put together a report on polling numbers, so he agreed to meet in the morning. You stayed up all night, and were surprised to find him ready to go at 6:30 a.m.
And I overslept. [Laughs] He still hired me.

Who should I talk to next?
Lord Browne, the former CEO of BP.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.