Pollster and pundit Mark Penn inspired headlines last week with a surprising finding suggesting that a substantial number of Joe Biden voters do not want his party to control the Senate.
“A majority of voters say they want Republicans to remain in control of the Senate in the new year after the Georgia runoff races,” The Hill reported on Nov. 23, citing results from The Harris Poll, a firm owned by Penn’s private equity fund Stagwell Group. Other outlets including Newsweek and Washington Examiner followed with coverage of Penn’s poll and how voters want a split Congress.
The poll’s respondents were divided nearly evenly between self-identified Democrats and Republicans and included 25% who identified as Independents, and a majority told the pollsters that they voted for Biden. But 56% of those polled said they want at least one of the Republican candidates to win in the Jan. 5 Georgia Senate runoffs so that Republicans can maintain control of the Senate.
“This is a strong headwind for Democrats in the special election,” Penn told The Hill, despite the poll having surveyed voters nationwide, rather than just Georgia voters.
Penn, however, is not a disinterested observer of the Georgia races. As he promotes poll findings to the media and pontificates as a pundit, he is simultaneously profiting from efforts to re-elect Perdue and Loeffler and keep the Senate in GOP hands.
Stagwell Group is a minority stakeholder in Targeted Victory LLC, a digital firm that has been paid more than $4.1 million since Nov. 3 by National Victory Action Fund, a hybrid PAC, for digital ad, email, and text message campaigns supporting the re-elections of Perdue and Leoffler, according to Federal Election Commission records.
The Harris Poll’s finding, which circulated widely on social media, could influence the special election races by, for example, making Georgia voters question if there is a downside to having Democrats control both chambers of Congress. Regardless, Penn’s investment in one of the largest pro-Perdue/Loeffler vendors is a conflict of interest for his polling work that could give people reason to doubt the integrity of his findings regarding Georgia, yet none of the news outlets that covered the results mentioned Penn’s dual roles.
Targeted Victory, which Stagwell Group invested in in 2017, specializes in mobile-native digital campaigns for Republican politicians as well as corporate clients. It was founded in 2009 by Mitt Romney’s digital director Zac Moffat. Its clients have included the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Donald J. Trump for President, and Facebook. In a Medium post about the investment, Targeted Victory wrote that linking up with Stagwell Group would allow it to partner with the firms’ other companies, like Harris Poll.
Stagwell Group also owns Democratic consultancy and corporate lobbying firm SKDKnickerbocker that employs Biden senior adviser Anitta Dunn as a managing director. Among SKDK’s clients are Uber, Lyft and Grubhub, for whom it is running a front group that is working to deny gig economy workers labor protections in New York. Targeted Victory lists SKDKnickerbocker, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee vendor, as a partner on its website.
Penn, who was a chief strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign against Barack Obama, has long urged Democrats to move to the right on economic issues. He has worked closely with his wife’s centrist nonprofit, No Labels, advising on media strategy to help the group support the election of moderate Democrats like anti-choice candidate John Morganelli in Pennsylvania and former Rep. Dan Lipinski.
Stagwell Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.