Mark Mellman got his start in the politics of polling as a graduate student at Yale.
In 1981, Connecticut congressional candidate Bruce Morrison asked for Mellman's help on his campaign. The Democrat went on to win, and Mellman went to Washington, D.C., to form Information Associates, which became incorporated as The Mellman Group in 1986.
The firm specializes in polling and focus groups for Democratic candidates and progressive organizations, as well as corporate and government clients. It performs research for candidates to see which messages will get through to voters. The group also performs public opinion surveys for corporations and interest groups, sometimes teaming with Republican polling firms such as Public Opinion Strategies.
The Mellman Group's client list includes the NBA's Washington Wizards, United Airlines, both PepsiCo and Coca Cola, more than three dozen Democratic House and Senate campaigns, and government agencies that include the departments of Justice, State and Labor. The firm also works outside the country for corporate and political clients, for example, helping César Gaviria win the presidency of Colombia in 1990.
In the 2004 presidential race, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was the firm's client. At a Stanford University conference the week after the November election, Mellman jokingly commented on his reaction to the Democrat's loss: "[Y]ou can't imagine how much time it takes to lie on the floor in a fetal position, it really takes a lot out of me."
The image — encouraged by some politicians — of the pollster telling the candidate what position to take just isn't true, according to Mellman Group Vice President Doug Usher.
"We don't put a message on the candidate that doesn't fit them or that they don't believe in, or have them pick up a position on an issue that they don't want to work for. Frankly, I think it's a little bit unethical," Usher told a group of consultants, candidates and academics at a June 2006 conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Campaigns & Elections magazine.
"Unfortunately, the ethics really come down to winning and losing," he said. "Who's ethical? I don't know — who won?"
Usher said that candidates have a lot of issues they care about, and his research simply helps to narrow those to a few messages to play up and to pinpoint a few that would be better unmentioned.
"Candidates come in wanting to change the world, and the world isn't just one or two issues," he says. "We test it all."
In April 2006, Mellman wrote in a commentary piece for the Washington newspaper, The Hill, that Democratic campaigns should spend more time and money on voter registration efforts — a strategy he says is difficult to sell to candidates, who would rather focus on get-out-the-vote efforts targeting known supporters.
Mellman argued that broader research is needed outside the election cycle to determine what methods work best to get voters to the polls.
"The truth is we know damn little about what works in campaigns," he wrote. "Most of what passes for evidence in this business is nothing more than dimly remembered anecdote or thinly disguised salesmanship."