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Dec 19, 2023, 6:20pm EST
politics

Mark Penn’s polling is driving coverage of Israel. But should it?

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The Scene

Half of young Americans support Hamas over Israel. A majority think Israel should “be ended and given to Hamas and the Palestinians.” And two-thirds think Jews are “a class of oppressors who should be treated as oppressors.”

All of these were results from the Harvard CAPS Harris poll, conducted every month by HarrisX — a 60-year old brand, purchased in 2017 by the Stagwell Group and its co-founder Mark Penn, a centrist operative best known for his former work with the Clintons. Each finding traveled widely in the press, as commentators — Penn included — lamented that a rising generation had fallen into a spiral of radicalization.

In a wave of polling about American views on Israel, and its war in Gaza, the Harris poll has stood out for the sheer number of hot-button questions it asks, and for the dramatic results. The questions, piped straight from the news cycle, make for shock answers that drive coverage around the globe, from The New York Post to the Jerusalem Post.

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“We explore all topics from all angles and that’s what makes the poll unique,” said Dritan Nesho, the Harvard CAPS Harris poll’s co-director. “We publish everything precisely so everyone has the same info we do and provides feedback on the next go. The poll is done on a completely pro bono basis and for the public benefit.”

The poll, Nesho said, grew out of a class he taught with Penn and Stephen Ansolabehere, “and the observation that most polls ask very limited and stilted questions.” Every month, a fifth of the poll’s questions are written anew to check public sentiment on the big issues.

But the attention frustrates rival pollsters, who are skeptical of the survey’s methodology and uncomfortable seeing its answers go viral.

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“It’s tough for me to take the findings at face value,” said Lakshya Jain, a partner at Split Ticket. “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.”

Critics note that the results often seem bizarrely inconsistent. The same December survey that found 60% of 18-24 year olds believed Israel was committing “genocide” in Gaza found 70% also believed Israel was “trying to avoid civilian casualties.” Majorities of 18-24 year olds apparently think that all of Israel should be surrendered to Hamas (51% agree) — but also that Hamas is a group that “would like to commit genocide” (58% agree) and should be “removed from running Gaza” (58% agree as well). Covering the results, the Times of Israel called the responses “muddled.”

Findings like these have baffled other pollsters, who question how Penn’s polling operation builds its samples (weighted “where necessary,” according to language in each polling memo), and how it keeps respondents engaged through a long battery of political questions answered online. (Panelists can get gift cards for their participation.) One potential explanation for why certain people have diametrically opposed answers, for example, might be that they’re clicking “yes” on the first thing they see after fielding dozens of questions in a row, many of them on unfamiliar topics.

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“The poll sets up polarizing or inscrutable scenarios, then doesn’t even let people respond ‘not sure,’” said Will Jordan, a Democratic pollster at Global Strategy Group. “That’s going to force respondents with different views to pick a side at random or based on response-option vibes. But the numbers get shared as if they’re real attitudes.”

Nesho noted that its underlying data are posted online, and that HarrisX nailed Joe Biden’s popular vote margin in the 2020 election. It has a “B” rating from polling site FiveThirtyEight.com.

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David’s view

That there’s a generation gap over Israel is clear. New polling from the New York Times and Siena College has found younger Americans more supportive of a ceasefire, with 67% of voters under 30 agreeing that “should stop its military campaign in order to protect against civilian casualties, even if Hamas has not been fully eliminated.”

But Penn’s polling has gone much further, asking an online panel dozens of questions about the conflict, including “do you support more Israel or more Hamas?” Its results showed half of Americans under 25 siding with a terrorist organization, data since cited by Vivek Ramaswamy and other Republicans as evidence that online propaganda, from TikTok and other sources, was poisoning young minds. As The Bulwark’s Will Saletan noted, other polls have found significantly less sympathy for Hamas among young people.

Critics tend to cite the same issues with Harris numbers. One is that the questions, ripped from the headlines, show a country fired up and opinionated about every issue crossing the news desk. December’s poll asked whether “university presidents today in general are showing the right leadership needed for our young people,” and whether “women’s groups have adequately condemned crimes against women committed by Hamas.” (The answer, for 64% and 51% of respondents respectively, was “no.”)

“Translating non-representative interviews into something representative is dependent on not just whether the sample was weighted, but on the overall rigor of the process,” said Mark Blumenthal, a pollster who consults for YouGov. “It requires that we put a lot of trust into the name Mark Penn.”

That’s partly what this is about: Harris is Mark Penn’s poll, and Penn’s own punditry has critics even more skeptical about his numbers. Many are resentful at the boost in credibility his survey gets from having “Harvard” in headlines instead of a long-divisive political operative’s name.

“I don’t look at it, for no other reason than that Mark Penn is the director of it,” said Stephen Clermont, the polling director at Change Polls.

Penn’s wife Nancy Jacobson leads No Labels, whose effort to launch a third party presidential campaign in 2024 is opposed by nearly every Democrat. Harris X does polling for No Labels. Penn was critical of the Mueller investigation, finding a new audience on Fox News; the Harris polling, at the time, found the country agreeing with him.

That feeds a skepticism about Penn’s polling that doesn’t always cross over to mainstream media or politicians eager for new input on stories they care about. These numbers feed the news. If they weren’t asking a sample of voters about — another example from the last wave — college presidents testifying before Congress, who would?

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Room for Disagreement

Voters offering confusing or inconsistent answers isn’t an unheard-of phenomenon. Some critics of the Harvard CAPS Harris survey noted that their polling showed younger voters tacking hard left on Israel, while also trending toward supporting Donald Trump in the general election, who is more hawkish on related issues. But the New York Times found a similar result in their own poll: “The young Biden ’20 voters with anti-Israel views are the likeliest to report switching to Mr. Trump,” Times’ polling analyst Nate Cohn wrote.

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The View From Pro-Israel Democrats

New polling conducted for Democratic Majority for Israel, shared first with Semafor, found only fringe support for Hamas, and no demographic reservoir of pro-terror sentiment. The Mellman Group, run by DMFI’s Mark Mellman, conducted the survey of 1637 registered voters from Dec. 7-12.

Asked who was “most to blame” for the war, 62% of voters said that Hamas was, and 15% said Israel. The numbers on a potential cease-fire were just as stark — 61% said that Israel “should only agree to a ceasefire with Hamas after Hamas has been disarmed and dismantled and the hostages they took are released.” Just 19% of all voters disagreed, and just 11% of Democrats viewed Hamas favorably.

“Some people focus on sub-groups, and that’s always a little dangerous,” said Mellman. “The overall point that Harris makes on Israel, that it has overwhelming support here – that is confirmed by our polling.”

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Notable

  • In New York, Gabriel Debenedetti explores the “alarming calm” of the Biden 2024 team, despite all the polling; the mood is that “this race will not just be a referendum on him but also on his opponent.”
  • In Bridge Michigan, Malachi Barrett and Lauren Gibbons report on a scuffle at a pro-Palestinian protest of a Democratic congressman’s holiday party, “highlighting deep divisions that could spell trouble for Democrats come fall.”
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