Craig is the tip of the iceberg, albeit about the only one of Secret’s peers who is not afraid to stand behind both his respect for polls and a cold assessment of the pollster.
“Among other pollsters,” says one who is relatively new to the field, “there are little resentments, personality quirks, big egos. But only Alan badmouths colleagues. And he does it gratuitously, even in noncompetitive situations such as casual conversations.”
Media consultant Saul Shorr, who admits getting “grief” from others because of his friendship with Secrest, agrees that his friend has the meanest, baddest mouth in the business. “He’s very tough at the pitching stage. Whereas most pollsters plant the seed of contrast between themselves and their closest competitors, Alan plants it, seeds it, waters it and watches it grow.”
“All of us plant a seed,” snaps another consultant. “The difference is, Alan tries to dump fertilizer on competition.”
“I have been around the block. I’ve worked with every consultant, pollster, fundraiser- you name it. Never in my years have I been treated the way I have been with Alan,” says former Democratic Party official. “I don’t know why it is, but I do know that I’m not alone.”
“He’s gone out of his way to criticize behind my back, in front of my face and to my clients,” says fellow pollster who declined an in-depth interview on Secrest describing the topic as “distasteful.”
A seasoned pollster, who says he long ago realized the importance of long0term friendships and harmonious working relationships in the imperfect marketplace of political polling, explains: “Alan has burned so many bridges, both institutionally and individually, that in many places he’s at a disadvantage.”
The point is not wasted on another pollster, namely, Secrest, who today says, “it’s doesn’t pay off. I think I’ve made my mistakes along the way. I’m learning. Once burned, twice shy.
“I do plead guilty to aggressive marketing. Sometimes that means comparative marketing. But we have to be more careful. I’ve taken my medicine and learned my lesson.” He leans over and offers an outstretched hand and oversized grin.
Obviously the man thinks an apology is in order. Indeed, it could be the main reason he agreed to an interview that confronts The Letter. But do his colleagues and competitors accept it?
“I think he made a marked determination to be more congenial. I think his mea culpa is as studied as his aggressiveness. I think there’s no way to distinguish it,” says a twice-burned pollster who thinks that Secrest takes things far too personally.
“I don’t think his aggressiveness is studied at all,” says another. “It’s instinctive. I suspect this mea culpa is studied, unless he’s changed in the last few months.”
But one media consultant –– who says peer pressure prevents him from saying for attribution that he believes Secrest has matured since 1988 –– accepts the apology as genuine.
“If I say that, everyone is going to say, ‘You’re an idiot for saying anything nice about the guy.’ But I think that after ’88, when he went to people to rally support after The Letter, he woke up, looked around and realized, ‘I don’t have a fucking friend in town.’”
At the start of the ’88 cycle, Secrest says he saw a fiercely competitive playing field. “There was a feeding frenzy among firms to get clients in the ’88 political cycle. You had a lot of new, frustrated polling firms scrambling for the leftovers,” he says. “It was a question of supply and demand. The marketplace had changed. I think we were among the firms that realized the changing marketplace and changed along with it.
“The only analogy,” Secrest says of the ’88 cycle, “is that you’re on a peaceful transatlantic flight and suddenly you’re seeing flak flying about. All of a sudden, the dialogue changed.”
The perception shared by many of his competitors is that CSA was starting to feel the heat more sharply because its contract with NCEC was about to be terminated. That contract, which since 1982 had been renewed for three consecutive cycles, provided for in-kind contributions to CSA clients whom NCEC endorsed. By 1988, 45 percent of the firm’s business was with NCEC candidates, according to Secrest.
Secrest insists that after 1988, when NCEC decided to disband its polling program in favor of targeting, it took with it only the institutional umbrella of security it had provided, not almost half of CSA’s income.
“It’s just wrong to say that NCEC had this collection of candidates that it brought to CSA and took away when they changed their program,” Secrest says. “We brought clients to them, too.”