By Glenn Thrush
March 14, 2016
Joel Benenson is a world-class worrier, but he isn’t especially worried about Donald Trump in the fall.
Trump isn't just freaking out Republicans these days -- Democrats, panicked by his unstoppable rise in the primaries, see him as an ochre ogre capable of undoing Barack Obama's legacy and undermining the civility supporting American democracy.
Trump-phobia has infected many people in Hillary Clinton’s extended orbit – especially her notoriously jelly-kneed donors — and they are dutifully fretting over Trump’s dark-alley debate style, his promise to napalm the Clintons with personal attacks and, above all, his magical-realism appeal to angry Rust Belt whites.
Benenson, the Clinton campaign’s bearded principal pollster and chief strategist, can't even bring himself to pay lip-service to Trump, whom he sees as a one-man Democratic turnout machine and a turn-off switch to moderates in both parties. His analysis of the 2016 landscape leads him to this conclusion that Trump has virtually no path to the presidency (He won't say the same thing about Bernie Sanders) and Trump presents Clinton with renewed opportunities in purple states – especially North Carolina and Arizona.
Indeed, when I interviewed him for POLITICO’s “Off Message” podcast on Friday, the typically easygoing Benenson was in a tense and testy mood, bracing for an uncertain battle against Bernie Sanders on Tuesday – lashing the Vermont senator for impugning Clinton’s character. Yet when I mentioned Trump — specifically the developer’s claim he could swipe New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the lot from the Democrats — his Charlie Brown cloud lifted instantly.
“It’s not real,” a grinning Benenson said of Trump’s repeated claim he can defeat Clinton (or Sanders) by wrestling away swing-state voters.
“I don’t see any state that Democrats have won five out of six times, or six out of six times, that Trump, you know, at face value, poses a threat in. I just don’t see it,” said Benenson, who was the top pollster in Barack Obama’s two successful presidential campaigns.
“What’s the evidence of it? The evidence of it, they’ve turned out a lot of people. I think he’s broken 50 percent in only one state, right? … If you look at the states that Democrats have won… in five out of the last six [presidential contests], it adds up to 257 electoral votes. It means you only need 13 more to get to 270 if we perform that way.”
Other Obama alumni — including ’08 campaign manager David Plouffe — are basically on the same page, although they think Trump’s unpredictability (coupled with Clinton’s innate caution as a candidate) could cause unexpected problems. Benenson said he hasn’t polled extensively on Trump yet but he thinks Trump has so antagonized minority voters — and turned off moderate whites with his harsh rhetoric and chaotic rallies — that Clinton might exceed Obama’s 2012 total of 332 Electoral College votes.
North Carolina, which Obama won narrowly in ’08 and lost by 2 percent four years later, would likely be target number one in a Clinton-Trump showdown. “That’s going to be a very problematic state for Republicans,” he said. “Now, we played there in 2012, but not a lot. The president didn't go into the state. We let Romney outspend us 5 to 1.”
It would be nice to have the luxury of focusing exclusively on Trump (or, better still, concocting a game plan against Ted Cruz, the Clinton camp’s preferred opponent). But there’s the small matter of clearing aside Sanders, who has a front-runner’s online fundraising operation and a terrier-with-teeth-in-your-leg competitive tenacity that could keep him in the fight until the convention.
A couple of weeks ago, Clinton’s team was very confident she was close to wrapping up the nomination. But when I asked Benenson to look ahead to Tuesday’s big five-state contest, he hit the basic talking points: She was ahead by 215 pledged delegates, a bigger lead in that category than Obama ever enjoyed in 08. And he demurred when I asked if Clinton would emerge with a “substantial” net delegate gain for the night. “Substantial?” he said. “There are a lot of delegates. Like I said, if there are 867 out there – I don’t know how we’ll be measuring substantial by the end of the night, and I can’t forecast it, because some of these states are closer than others.”
Like everybody else, Benenson was a bit blind-sided by Sanders’ stunning win in Michigan last week (Brooklyn’s data team predicted a five-point Clinton win – public pollsters had Sanders losing by three or four times that margin). Moreover, it’s no secret that he’s struggled (along with the candidate herself) to sharpen Clinton’s sprawling competence-and-policy-mastery platform into a compact, inspirational, bumper-stickery message to compete with Sanders’ anti-Wall Street crusade. Reports of friction between him and the Clintons have been overstated, he told me.
“You know, she’s been on the road more and I’m here more in New York and Brooklyn,” said Benenson, the highest-ranking member of Clinton’s team who hadn’t worked with her on previous campaigns. “But I think we’ve gotten to know each other more. We talk very frankly. She knows I speak my mind; I’m somebody who does, and I think that works for her… I like it when we’re doing debate prep and there’s a lot of back-and-forth, and you’re hearing her talk. She’s often the one who comes up with the best things because they come from what she's believed for a long time, and I think it’s a pretty powerful place to be. I think this is a woman who knows who she is, knows why she's doing this.”
Benenson is protective of Clinton and has, not surprisingly, cultivated a not-inconsiderable disdain for Sanders and his sharp-elbowed team. “He’s been in the free media, been leveling very — and the whole campaign has been leveling very explicit attacks on Secretary Clinton. He’s tried to impugn her character,” he said, his voice rising to a near shout. “He does it all the time. He does it, you know, in a way that has given him enough wiggle room to say, ‘No, no, I’m not being negative,’ but of course he is. His whole campaign.”
Sanders’ criticisms of Benenson’s former boss, Obama, are especially galling. Walk into his 33rd-floor office in Midtown Manhattan and you’ll find a mini-museum full of first-rate ’08 ephemera: The conference room is festooned with “Obama Wins” newspaper headlines, and a cardboard cut-out of the 44th president stares back at you benevolently as you sit on the waiting room couch.
“The things he says about Barack Obama… It actually pisses me off… because it’s disingenuous,” Benenson said, flashing real anger. “Don’t stand on a stage in front of television cameras, with millions of people when you’re running in a Democratic primary and say he’s a friend of yours and you work with him.”
“You know, I’d like to remind everybody what he said when Barack Obama was under attack by Republicans running for reelection in 2012, when he called [Obama] weak, a disappointment to millions of people, and said he didn’t have the backbone to stand up to Republicans,” he said, suggesting Sanders is more comfortable slamming his allies than the common enemy. “I haven’t heard him say a word about George Bush. Have you even heard him mention George Bush’s name on the campaign trail?”
The contempt, in many ways, is born of familiarity. Benenson, like Sanders, is an overachieving outer-borough working-class Jew who was drawn to progressive political causes early in his life. Both had peripatetic young adulthoods that didn’t portend powerful futures on the national stage. Sanders college-hopped, abandoning his native Brooklyn for bucolic Vermont where he earned a living as a carpenter, writer, filmmaker and freelance gadfly before winning the Burlington mayor’s race as a socialist.
Benenson, who looks a decade younger than his 63 years, took an even more circuitous path. He dropped out of Queens College, just short of graduation, to work in avant-garde theater. Then, to pay his rent, he accepted an uncle’s offer to help run a beer distributorship in Crown Heights Brooklyn. And that’s where he spent the night of the 1977 New York City blackout – staked out at the front door, a shotgun borrowed from his girlfriend’s brother loaded on his lap. Then he wanted to become a Yankees beat reporter, which eventually led to a successful career as a political scribe for the New York Daily News. His is a rarity in the media-suspicious world of the Clintons: Many of his oldest friends are reporters – Adam Nagourney of the Times, Roger Simon of POLITICO, Serge Kovaleski (the Times-man whose disability Trump mocked at a rally), and Obama message man David Axelrod, who made his name at the Chicago Tribune.
Like Sanders, who was arrested for participating in a civil rights demonstration as a student in 1960s Chicago, Benenson had his own brush with protest and the police. In 1970, a day after the Kent State shootings, a 17-year-old Benenson was (in his words) “detained” after joining a group of anti-Vietnam protesters who blocked the heavily-trafficked Long Island Expressway.
But their paths diverged in ways that say much about the character of each man and each campaign. While Sanders spent most of his teens and twenties as an activist for socialist and student organizations, Benenson was attracted to mainstream Democratic politics. His hero was Bobby Kennedy, and he casts the New York senator’s 1968 campaign as the hybrid of idealism and pragmatism currently embodied by his 2016 boss.
In our interview, Benenson started to talk about Kennedy matter-of-factly, but he broke down as he described watching TV coverage of Martin Luther King’s assassination in his parent’s Jackson Heights living room. He remembers the image of Kennedy, jumping on top of a parked car to address a seething African-American crowd in Indianapolis. “What we need in the United States is not division,” Kennedy said. “What we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another.”
“That,” Benenson said, “was powerful.”
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