One on 1 Profile: Clinton Chief Strategist and Pollster Joel Benenson's Journey into Politics Included Intriguing Stops Along the Way
One on 1 reached out to both the Trump and Clinton campaigns for profiles on people who wield significant influence behind the scenes. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following profile on Hillary Clinton's chief strategist and pollster Joel Benenson, whose journey into politics included several intriguing stops along the way.
Joel Benenson loves competition.
The biggest picture on his office wall by the famed sports photographer Neil Leifer is of the racehorse considered by many to be the greatest of all time, Secretariat.
"To me, it's just embodiment of competitive athlete," Benenson says. "All four legs off the ground, every muscle in that horse's body is rippling, his eyes are down head first, looking at finish line. The only thing that matters is winning."
For almost two years, Benenson has run his biggest, and most competitive, race yet as Hillary Clinton's chief strategist and pollster. It's been a remarkable journey for this son of Queens.
But the chapter of his life that most affected his political views occurred far away from politics: running a beer distributorship in the 1970s in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
"My cashier from Panama who wanted her daughter to get an education. The white working-class guy from Bensonhurst who never graduated from high school, just wanted his kids to do a little better," Benenson says. "It just stuck with me. Those conversations have been in my head ever since."
Benenson is the founder and CEO of the Benenson Strategy Group, a strategy research consulting firm that's advised corporations like Toyota, Uber and Intel, and organizations like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and Freedom to Marry.
Benenson served as chief pollster for Barack Obama's two presidential campaigns, including 2008, when he went up against his current candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Mishkin: Does it ever come up, either kiddingly or seriously,
"Hey, 2008, thanks a lot, pal?"
Benenson: It doesn't come up from her that way. You know, there's banter between other consultants who are on the other side, and, "Oh, well, you remember that from 2008, don't you?"
Some of Benenson's job is public, occasionally appearing on television for his candidates on shows like NY1's Inside City Hall. But mostly, a strategist's work takes place behind the scenes, devising a winning strategy for a candidate.
But that's only half the battle.
"You've also got to understand what path, if any, your opponent has to winning. So you've got to think through their side. Like, if you were designing their campaign, how would you run it? How could you win?" Benenson says. "Like, I could have told Bernie Sanders things he needed to do differently in his campaign. He ran a great campaign, but certainly, we knew what his vulnerabilities and weaknesses were."
A candidate and a strategist can go weeks without seeing each other, but the strategist is constantly involved, analyzing polling numbers, trends and the effect of the biggest public media events.
"Even if you go back to 2012, in the fall, Mitt Romney's 47 percent tape, huge. President Obama's performance in the first debate, huge," Benenson says. "Romney's 47 percent tape, our lead grew from about 4 points to 7. And then our first debate, it went back to 4."
Joel Benenson grew up in Laurelton, Queens, a good athlete with a competitive spirit.
"I was known as a sore loser," he says. "I hated losing as a kid. You know, my mother would talk to me about it all the time. I just, I don't know where it came from. I just wanted to be better than anybody else out there."
His father died when Benenson was 18 months old. He was raised by a single mom.
In the late '60s, Benenson went to the now-closed Andrew Jackson High School, with a student population 50 percent white and 50 percent black.
"It was an extraordinary way to grow up," he says. "Because I think it was really formative about how you see and think about the world, and how you see and think about people and respect people in the world who are different from you."
He caught the acting bug in high school and majored in it at Queens College.
Benenson left school for theater and had some success, including directing a one-man off-Broadway show about the Holocaust.
To supplement his income, he helped run that beer distributorship in Crown Heights for seven years.
On the night of the 1977 blackout, he sat in front of the store with a borrowed shotgun.
"If there was anybody in front of their business or in front of their store where there was a deterrant, we would hear stories from some of the small business people we did business with, 'Nobody bothered you because there were so many places that were unattended,'" Benenson says. "So thankfully, we were there that night and didn't suffer damage."
Benenson didn't want to work as a beer distributor for the rest of his life, and acting wasn't financially feasible.
A journalist friend of his brother's thought Benenson had a nice touch with language. He began working for the Gannett papers in Westchester County and then moved to the Daily News, serving as its Albany bureau chief.
He loved the competition, getting stories first. But something was gnawing at him.
"And I'd been thinking to myself that I didn't want to keep pretending. I was a Democrat, and I didn't want to keep forcing and pretending the neutrality," he says.
He went to work for another competitive guy from Queens, Mario Cuomo. Benenson became Cuomo's communications director in 1994, when the Governor was running for a fourth term.
Cuomo would eventually lose that campaign, but Benenson realized after his first strategy meeting that he liked being in the room where it happened.
"I said to my wife, 'This is what I was meant to do.' I said, 'I love this, and I loved being in that room,'" he says. "And reporters are thinking one and two steps ahead in politics. The folks in that room are thinking four and five steps ahead. And that's what I want to do."
Benenson has worked on four of the last six presidential campaigns. His first was with President Bill Clinton in 1996.
He is married with two grown children. His wife Lisa is from Colorado, and has definitely taken the boy out of Queens.
"People are surprised that I'm a New Yorker and I love being in the mountains," he says. "They go, 'You go to Montana? What do you do there?' And I go, 'I just breathe.'"
We sat down with Joel Benenson on October 21, a week before the FBI director rocked the campaign, revealing the discovery of emails that could be connected to the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Two days before Election Day, the FBI cleared Clinton again.
When I asked Benenson about the worst night of the campaign, he said there had been rough moments, like the press reaction to an ailing Clinton leaving the 9/11 memorial.
"'Oh my God, we didn't know where she was. Why didn't they tell us all of this stuff?'" Benenson says. "And the truth is, the public after that, when we looked at polling, they thought she was just a trooper trying to go to the 9/11 thing. There were two different conversations taking place, but there was a lot of anxiety on our part about how that would be viewed by voters."
Benenson, a self-described working-class Queens kid, has always appreciated stories, as an actor, as a journalist and now, for 20 years, as a political pollster. So there's an appreciation for his own.
"I feel like life has been amazing for me. I've got an unbelievable marriage, great kids" he says. "IWhy shouldn't I be glass half full? mean, I've taken a lot of turns along the way to get where I am, but I wouldn't want to trade any of those experiences for anything. I wouldn't be who I am today, and I don't think I would be as good a pollster and strategist if I hadn't done all those other things in my life along the way."