Master pollster Stan Greenberg jumps the political divide

2013-12-02 08:00

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Instrumental in the ANC’s 1994 and 1999 election campaigns, master pollster Stan Greenberg has jumped the political divide to bolster the DA’s chances next year

A short, somewhat stocky, grey fountain of energy spurts out greetings in a Cape Town hotel lobby. Stan Greenberg may be 68 years old, but his drive seems undiminished.

He is the pollster immortalised in movies like The War Room and The American President, the Jewish guy spewing forth numbers, crafting the message to put victory within reach.

An answer to what drives his involvement in such campaigns can be found in his book, Dispatches from the War Room, a must-read for any politics junkie.

“What I do,” he claims in the book, “is put ordinary people into the story.”

“And how exactly do you poll to achieve that?” I ask him.

“You respect views. You do not presume to know the reason for views. You step back and listen, especially at the beginning, because maybe, as an outsider, you can listen with a fresh mind.

“Do not filter the information immediately. Listen to focus groups. Later, test language, test billboards, test ads,” he says in his rapid-fire manner.

“Do not dismiss objectionable views. Rather try to understand what they are based on.”

Stan Greenberg’s ties to DA national chairperson Wilmot James facilitated his transition to work with the opposition party. Picture: Jaco Marais

Greenberg’s link to South Africa goes back to 1973 and 1974 when, as an academic, he lived here at the height of apartheid writing his highly regarded tome, Race and State in Capitalist Development.

It was during this time that he formed a deep, enduring and personal friendship with the sociologist, Dr Wilmot James, the current DA national chairperson.

Many returns to this country?–often through his involvement with the Yale University Southern African Research Programme –?saw him becoming a bane of the state, being placed under security surveillance and eventually hounded out of the country.

So when the 1994 liberation election came, he jumped in on the side of the ANC and, with some American associates, joined the ANC’s election nerve centre.

His tales from those days are riveting, especially on how Madiba prevailed, against the wishes of radical ANC hotheads, to admit and accept democratic defeat in Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

“So, Mr Greenberg, the crucial question: given your past and your credentials, why switch loyalties and skills from the ANC to the DA?”

He replies: “I worked with the ANC from 1994 to 1999. Then I quit. The Mbeki government’s stance on Aids and Zimbabwe played a huge role. The ANC then came to Washington to request my involvement in their campaign, but this time I said no.

“There was a gap before I took an affirmative decision to work with the DA. I did consider Cope and waited for a union split.

“I have maintained conversations with reputable ANC leaders over many years. I have long expected the fragmentation of the ANC, but that has not happened yet.

“All the while, I watched the evolution of the DA and Wilmot’s rise in it. A year ago, I sent a signal and it was picked up. I did so because I believe the DA to be the only inclusive challenger to what the ANC has become.

“I believe the DA doing well in the election will accelerate change in South Africa by lessening ANC support.

“A strong DA showing will make the ANC more accountable to the voter. I have also been impressed by the calibre of DA leadership, especially Helen Zille and Lindiwe Mazibuko. How lucky the DA is to have such leaders,” he says.

Asked to explain the nature of his involvement, Greenberg says it is that of an outside adviser to the existing local DA polling operation. Over the years, many of those members have gone to Greenberg’s own polling operation in Washington as the DA grows its own timber.

He believes Zille’s public image as a politician is one of the DA’s major strengths, as well as the manner in which the party governs Western Cape.

“The nature of the existing protest vote needs to change. Why did Cope not work?

“Polling shows the DA is being viewed as a major and growing party with growing black membership which is taken seriously. At this stage, the DA is at least as strong as the EFF in black communities, especially among dissatisfied voters.

“The big goal must be to bring the ANC vote down and make it accountable. Polling shows dissatisfied voters are more likely to vote against the ANC closer to home on the provincial ballot whereas nationally, party loyalty remains strong.

“This is especially true in Gauteng, where ANC support was below 50% for much of the run-up to 1994. There is a history of Gauteng being competitive.

“The ANC’s major strengths are its established liberation brand and Madiba, as well as its organisational ability to squeeze out its core vote immediately before and on election day.

“Under presidents Mbeki and Mandela, jobs, homes and electricity were strong points. One will have to see if President [Jacob] Zuma lives up to that strength.

“An important and changed factor is the heightened perception of corruption President Zuma polls beneath the ANC. Corruption will be an important election issue and it finds the ANC lagging and drifting.

“As for the DA, it, of course, has no weaknesses I would wish to discuss,” grins the master spin doctor.

But is the DA not setting its expectations too high?

“A serious contender has to aspire to win. A serious contender has to get people to believe change is possible. The DA needs to truly reach in this election.

“If the ANC was polling at 65%, the notion would be preposterous, but that is not the impression at the moment.

“We are not far from where the ANC was when I dealt with them in 1994, but now the black vote is much more fragmented.

“It will be hard for the ANC to manage an equivalent push to 1994. Our expectations are not crazy given the ANC’s Gauteng weaknesses,” says Greenberg.

His phone bleeps, so he laughs away my efforts to extract a prediction. His wife just texted. She has landed in London. Why has he not organised transport?

The interview terminates abruptly. Clearly, domestic crises always trump the international affairs of politics and state, even if you are Stan Greenberg.

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