From left, Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images; Liam McBurney/PA Images via Getty Images; EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI/AFP via Getty Images
- An ex-Clinton pollster boosted Ron DeSantis and dismissed Joe Biden as the way to defeat Donald Trump.
- Mark Penn’s commentary is “significant” and “dangerous,” on Democratic group, Third Way, warns.
- It “further reinforces the mistaken but widely held idea” that Biden isn’t up to the challenge.
A former Clinton pollster’s promotion of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — and dismissal of President Joe Biden — as the way to defeat former President Donald Trump in 2024 is “significant” and “dangerous,” one Democratic group warned on Monday.
In a Sunday Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mark Penn advised DeSantis, who is expected to soon announce his presidential bid, on how to “get back in the game” in the GOP primary battle by sidelining his culture war issues and running on “character, competence and common sense.” Penn, who served as a pollster and advisor to former Democratic President Bill and Hillary Clinton from 1995 to 2008, said he wouldn’t normally advise a Republican candidate.
“But someone has to stop Donald Trump from regaining the presidency, and I wouldn’t count on President Biden to do it given his low job-approval rating and widespread doubts about his fitness,” wrote Penn, who now chairs the Harris Poll and is CEO of Stagwell Inc.
Penn publicly defended Trump against his first impeachment and, according to the Washington Post, provided him with polling advice, as well. But in November 2022, he urged both Trump and Biden to not run for president in a Wall Street Journal op-ed with Democrat Andrew Stein, a longtime friend of Trump’s and former New York City Council president from 1986-94.
Penn’s op-ed coincides with a controversial effort from the political organization No Labels, led by Penn’s wife Nancy Jacobson, to field a third-party presidential candidate in 2024. The group has called the effort “an insurance policy” in case both major political parties nominate a candidate that most Americans oppose.
The Democratic think tank Third Way, which has been fighting that effort and saying it would boost Trump, criticized Penn’s op-ed in a statement to Insider.
“It is significant that he is dismissing Biden as the way to stop Trump and is therefore pulling for DeSantis,” wrote Matt Bennett, co-founder of the center-left think tank, in an email when asked about the op-ed. “We think that’s dangerous. It further reinforces the mistaken but widely held idea that Biden is not up to the tasks of the presidency or the campaign.”
“Biden can and will beat Trump,” he continued.
Penn told Insider his reason for the op-ed is clear: “I believe Donald Trump has disqualified himself for further office but that if he gets the nomination he just might win.”
“There is nothing ‘dangerous’ in questioning whether Joe Biden can beat Donald Trump,” he added. “It’s dangerous to deny the obvious vulnerabilities that everyone is wondering about — vulnerabilities that the Biden campaign will have to confront.
“If we do get to the Biden/Trump rematch, I will surely be writing ‘How Joe Biden can beat Donald Trump,'” he wrote.
No Labels, which did not respond to a request for comment, has reportedly said in the past that Penn isn’t involved with its group. Penn told Insider he’s a registered Democrat but advises “no campaigns of any kind” and instead provides commentary on all of them now. “I will call balls and strikes regardless of affiliation,” he wrote.
The Washington Post, however, reported that No Labels commissioned surveys from HarrisX, a company whose corporate parent is overseen by Penn. The Intercept reported in 2018 on emails showing Jacobson consulting her husband on the group’s decision-making.
Penn’s encouragement for DeSantis follows a tumultuous period for the Florida governor, as he tangles with Walt Disney World over culture war issues, loses Florida Republican endorsements to Trump and lags in polls behind the former president.
Penn points to a polling average that shows Trump beating Biden and writes that a Trump-Biden rematch is a “risky proposition.” Because Democrats are backing Biden, “the only way to avoid it is through the Republican primary,” he wrote.
A RealClearPolitics average of the same polls shows DeSantis leading Biden by a slightly greater margin. Democrats are unsettled on who they’d prefer to win the GOP primary and some prefer a rematch with the legally challenged Trump over the younger, lesser-known DeSantis.
Polling this far out from the general election is “meaningless,” Bennett said. He touted Biden’s appeal to swing voters, including non-college voters who are open to Democrats, low unemployment under Biden’s watch, and “remarkable” achievements during his first two years in office.
“Most importantly, voters have said loudly that they prefer mainstream to extreme,” he wrote. “Biden wins that fight with Trump (or another MAGA candidate) every time.”