Meet the Pollsters Pushing Corporate Clients, Special Interests — and the Democrats

Global Strategy Group and Lake Research Partners, two major Democratic polling firms, have deep client ties in big business.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 24:  A man walks through the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, empty of tourists as only essential staff and journalists are allowed to work during the coronavirus pandemic March 24, 2020 in Washington, DC. After days of tense negotiations -- and Democrats twice blocking the nearly $2 trillion package -- the Senate and Treasury Department appear to have reached important compromises on legislation to shore up the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A man walks through the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., on March 24, 2020. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo took the stage on August 10 to announce his resignation, offering the now-infamous “Italian defense” to allegations that he had sexually harassed 11 women, his response was being carefully monitored in real time. Jefrey Pollock, a founding partner and the president of Global Strategy Group, had helped craft the public relations response to the scandal and was in direct contact with Cuomo’s top aide during the press conference, urging the governor to sound more contrite. While MSNBC anchor Katy Tur reported on the speech, Democratic operative Lis Smith took to a group chat for the team advising Cuomo, reporting gleefully: “Katy is saying my spin live… Like verbatim on CNN.”

Pollock, who was in the group chat, was uniquely qualified to contribute to the spin. Just two years prior, GSG, a consulting and polling firm, had produced a report on behalf of Time’s Up, the celebrity-led nonprofit that raises money to support victims of sexual harassment, titled “Opportunities to Engage: Voter Attitudes on Sexual Harassment.” By late February, Cuomo appeared to have made the most of his opportunities, launching a political comeback that cast aside contrition for vindication. “Politics won,” declared his new TV ad, “and New Yorkers lost a proven leader.”

Working for both the premier #MeToo organization and one of the highest-profile #MeToo offenders goes beyond a mere conflict of interest. A political operative playing both roles has a considerable advantage, as they learn how to craft a message precisely calibrated to disarm the opposing side by embedding directly within it. Cuomo framed his exit with an eye toward his reentrance. Time’s Up, meanwhile, imploded significantly as a result of the exposure of both Chair Roberta Kaplan and CEO Tina Tchen’s work helping Cuomo navigate the crisis. And now Cuomo is back, with GSG never having paid even the smallest political price.

Because they work behind the scenes, pollsters have a unique ability to escape scrutiny in American politics. Some of these firms have exploited that immunity to cash in on a startling amount of well-paid work that is directly and immediately at odds with the goals of the clients whose mission they claim to share.

Two firms providing the bulk of research, public relations consulting, and polling for members of the Democratic Party provide those same services to a wide array of corporate clients, many of whom are in direct opposition to the stated aims of their Democratic clientele. GSG and Lake Research Partners have a long history of partnering with candidates, officials, and causes aligned with the Democratic Party’s platform. A review of their other partnerships, however, calls into question the impartiality of the services rendered to the party.

GLG And NYPEN Host A Conversation On The 2016 Presidential Election With Political Strategists Frank Luntz And Jefrey Pollock
Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg's spokesperson Lis Smith speaks to the press in the Spin Room after participating in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Left/Top: Jefrey Pollock, founding partner and president of Global Strategy Group, is photographed on Oct. 6, 2016, in New York. Right/Bottom: Lis Smith, a Democratic operative, speaks to the press in Miami on June 27, 2019.

To say that the Democratic Party and GSG have a close relationship would be a gross understatement. GSG boasts its service as pollsters for “some of Washington’s most esteemed leaders,” including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Ed Markey, D-Mass.; and Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., as well as many Democratic House members. The firm further claims itself to be the “leading polling partner for national Democratic party committees and PACs.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki is herself an alumnus, having served as the senior vice president and managing director of GSG’s Washington, D.C., office from 2011 to 2012.

In its role as a research partner and political adviser, GSG conducts studies to make recommendations to politicians and organizations as to how they can best convey and target their messaging. GSG-led focus groups for NextGen America, a youth-focused super PAC, led to the creation of the “Democratic Avengers” ad campaign during the 2020 presidential election. At other times, GSG offers strategy advice for contentious issues. Appearing on the podcast “The Great Battlefield” in 2019, Pollock revealed the guidance he gave to all of the firm’s Democratic clients regarding whether to vote for or against Trump’s impeachment: “I put my faith in Nancy Pelosi any time,” he said. “The singular advice I told all members is follow her. She knows what she’s doing. … Follow her, and whatever you do, don’t get out in front of her.”

GSG’s partnerships have included numerous corporations with a vested interest in government regulation. Oil companies such as Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Lukoil, the third-largest corporation in Russia by revenue, were clients of GSG from 2007 to 2014 and 2006 to 2014, respectively. The firm has also partnered with Big Tech companies including Meta, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter; pharmaceutical companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, Purdue Pharma, and Pfizer; and major financial institutions like Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Pershing Square Holdings, and Vulcan Capital.

Uber and Lyft have each hired GSG to conduct research in support of their bids to resist reclassifying their drivers from independent contractors. David Weil, President Joe Biden’s nominee for administrator of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, has staked a clear position in opposition to these efforts, saying, “Uber and Lyft produce a highly valued brand experience for consumers and investors based on their ability to control and direct drivers who are central to the service they provide. … Those workers are employees, not contractors.”

Weil’s confirmation is currently being held up by members of the business lobby, and it will require full support from Senate Democrats to push through. The major Democratic holdout in Weil’s confirmation is none other than Manchin, a GSG client since 2004, who has yet to fully explain his reluctance to confirm. Manchin’s office did not respond to The Intercept’s request to comment on his position.

While the Democratic Party could hardly be classified as anti-corporate itself, several of GSG’s political clientele profess to stand against the same corporate behaviors that GSG has enabled and continues to enable through its partnerships. When asked if the firm’s corporate partnerships influence its work with Democratic clients, Pollock told The Intercept in a written statement, “GSG is proud to help elect Democrats up and down ballot and our work for each of our clients is confidential and independent of any other work we do.”

This confidential and independent work strains credulity given the oppositional goals of several of the firm’s clients. There are instances, though, of GSG political clients acting against the interest of GSG corporate clients. In 2020, Gillibrand introduced the Data Protection Act to Congress, which would create an “independent Data Protection Agency to regulate the processing of personal data” in the executive branch — four months after Facebook, another GSG client since 2014, agreed to pay over half a million dollars for its role in the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal. In such scenarios, GSG is content to make money from either side of the issue.

White House Asks Congress For $32.5 Billion In Ukraine And Covid Aid

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 2022.

Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Lake Research Partners, too, counts many Democratic candidates and organizations among its clients. The firm conducted research for Biden’s presidential campaign and both Bill and Hillary Clinton’s respective presidential campaigns; it has also provided services to nine senators and 56 House members — including progressive Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Katie Porter of California — among many other politicians, labor organizations, and committees.

Lake differentiates itself from other pollsters through its lack of corporate partnerships. “We don’t do conventional market research for corporate branding or products. Our clients, whether from the worlds of politics, philanthropy, advocacy, government, labor, or business, are seeking insights and strategy to advance a social purpose and a progressive, inclusive future,” reads its website. A closer look at its history, however, shows a record of serving clients within the pharmaceutical industry and a decadeslong partnership with Republican pollsters.

Lake works with several nonprofit organizations with nice-sounding names that act as fronts for PhRMA.

Lake works with several nonprofit organizations with nice-sounding names that act as fronts for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of major pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, Amgen, and GlaxoSmithKline. For at least 14 years, Lake has worked with the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, a 501(c)(4) organization with a long list of partners, including Johnson & Johnson and Eli Lilly and Co., the drugmaker sued for driving up the price of insulin. In 2021, the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease spent at least $5.3 million airing TV ads in 13 states and Washington, D.C., against allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. Since 2009, PhRMA has given over $1.8 million to various firms to lobby on behalf of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease.

Between 2019 and 2020, PhRMA donated funds to the campaigns of two Lake Research clients in their House races. Reps. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., and Ron Kind, D-Wis., each received $3,000 from the organization. Kind, who was in the top 25 recipients of pharmaceutical PAC funds in the 2020 election cycle, joined Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., last year in drafting a letter to Biden encouraging the president to continue denying low-income countries’ request for a temporary waiver from intellectual property rules limiting their ability to mass produce Covid-19 vaccines. The letter, which read quite similarly to Pfizer’s own opposition, came two weeks after several prominent Democratic senators drafted a letter of their own asking the president to “prioritize people over pharmaceutical company profits” by supporting the waiver.

Lake Research also conducted polling for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network in 2018, and it currently lists the group as an advocacy client. In 2019, Cancer Action Network ran nationwide ads opposing changes to Medicare. These changes would have given insurers more opportunities to steer patients toward lower-cost therapies and generic drugs rather than more expensive options. A Kaiser Health News analysis showed that Cancer Action Network reported $671,500 in contributions from PhRMA and drug companies in 2015 alone, leading experts to question whether its opposition to the Medicare changes was rooted in the interests of patients or of drugmakers.

Lake Research Partners has teamed up for decades with Republican-aligned polling and public relations firms.

In addition to its work with these nonprofits, Lake has teamed up for decades with Republican-aligned polling and public relations firms. Celinda Lake of Lake Research and Ed Goeas, president of the Tarrance Group, a prominent Republican pollster since 1977, have partnered on bipartisan “Battleground Polls” since June 1991. Among the 110 Republican clientele the group has successfully helped elect to political office are several members of Congress who voted against confirming the 2020 election — including former Reps. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and Steve King, R-Iowa, and sitting Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.

In October 2021, Lake Research and Tarrance published the results of a “Battleground Poll” in which Lake concluded, “Voters in this survey clearly prefer a politician who is willing to work together to get things done, even if it means compromising on their values sometimes (66%) over a politician who consistently fights for their values, even if this means not finding a solution very often (26%).” The poll in question offered only these two responses — a binary choice that leads a voter to conflate compromise with solutions and ideals with stagnation. (Eight percent of voters polled chose not to respond along the suggested lines, writing in their own answer to the question or not answering at all.) Perhaps it is this commitment to bipartisanship and “finding a solution” that Lake clients Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., refer to when they argue the necessity of a strong Republican Party and defang progressive initiatives, such as the infrastructure bill, to ensure bipartisan support.

The Tarrance Group is not Lake’s only “bipartisan” polling partnership. In 2017, Lake was commissioned to conduct a survey on gerrymandering in conjunction with WPA Intelligence, a Republican pollster founded by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s former director of research and analytics, Chris Wilson. WPA Intelligence claims to have “done work for over 100 of the Fortune 500 and been involved in work for over 100 current and former members of the House of Representatives, the United States Senate, and gubernatorial and statewide officials across the nation,” making it “the go-to research and analytics firm for the conservative-right community.”


Everything Democrats Didn’t Do in 2021

Lake Research and GSG are not the only polling firms that work with both Democratic and corporate clients. They are not even the only firms that work with some of the organizations mentioned above. As previously reported by The Intercept, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a firm that, like GSG, conducts polling on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has represented a variety of corporate clients including Monsanto, Verizon, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and UnitedHealthcare. Hart Research Associates, another prominent Democratic pollster, works with PhRMA as well as Eli Lilly. Along with SKDK, yet another major polling firm working with the Democratic Party, all of these organizations have counted as a client at one time or another the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

GSG and Lake, the public relations professionals they are, market themselves quite differently from one another. Lake’s website appeals to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party — extolling its virtue as a “woman-owned small business with a commitment to diversity.” Almost refreshingly honest, however, is GSG owning its function as an influence broker by advertising its team members’ “decades of experience working in government across state and federal capitols” and “deep relationships with top leaders of every level of government.”

Correction: March 10, 2022, 3:25 p.m. ET
This article originally referred to Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., as a client of Lake Research Partners. Although McBath is listed under “Clients” on Lake’s website, the firm in fact made an independent expenditure on her behalf.
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