Tags: Arthur Finkelstein | Republican polling

Remembering Arthur Finkelstein, Godfather Of GOP Political Consultants

Image: Remembering Arthur Finkelstein, Godfather Of GOP Political Consultants

By    |   Sunday, 20 Aug 2017 07:44 PM

Watching Arthur Finkelstein interpret the results of his polling was an experience that could only be dubbed, well, an experience. When my eyes glazed over during one of his lengthy presentations in 1980, he pulled at my tie and began undoing it until I refocused on his words.

Finkelstein, who died on August 17 at age 72, was the premier pollster of the modern conservative movement. Most of leading senators on the right — James Buckley, C-R, N.Y., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Jesse Helms, R-N.C. — had Finkelstein in their corner.

When he expanded into political strategizing later in his career, Arthur quarterbacked the elections of the last two Republicans of consequence in New York: Sen. Al D'Amato (served 1980-98) and Gov. George Pataki (served 1994-2006).

"What made Arthur unique among consultants was he worked almost exclusively for conservatives," Craig Shirley, historian and friend of Finkelstein for nearly four decades, told me, "He'd never work for Democrats, and the Republicans he worked for just had to share Arthur's beliefs in small government and freedom."

Arthur. No one — from clients to reporters to the up-and-coming political consultants he mentored — ever called him "Mr. Finkelstein." Like a baseball star, he was always known to those who covered and participated in politics by his first name.

"As for the questions in his polls, Arthur came up with the one now used all the time — 'Would you vote for 'X' under any circumstances?'" said Ari Fleischer, press secretary to former President George W. Bush, whose first job out of college was working for the congressional bid of Finkelstein client and New York Assemblyman Jon Fossel.

"If it was at least 30 percent, Arthur would say, 'He'll win.' If it dropped to 20 percent, he'd say the candidate was doomed. That was his test."

A graduate of Queens College (NY), the young Finkelstein produced radio programs for libertarian author Ayn Rand and worked at the New York Stock Exchange. He also worked as a volunteer on the unsuccessful mayoral campaign of Republican Conservative John Marchi in 1969.

In 1970, at age 25, Finkelstein's passion for polling and sculpting resulting strategy paid off in a big way. As pollster to New York Conservative Party U.S. Senate nominee James Buckley, Finkelstein helped guide him to a plurality over the Republican and Democratic nominees.

"That was a great campaign," he later reminisced to me, "Three donors — three — each gave $330,000 to start the campaign and hire a campaign manager. And an automobile dealer donated a showroom in mid-town Manhattan he wasn't using that became our headquarters."

Finkelstein hated the post-1974 limits on individual contributions and the disclosure laws that would make long-shot campaigns like Buckley's nearly out of the question.

He went on to be one of the pollsters in Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election bid and, as Ari Fleischer told us, "Arthur loved to say he was the highest official in the campaign not to be charged with any crime."

He did the polling for a North Carolina television commentator and first-time candidate named Jesse Helms in his first Senate race in 1972 and did the same for another fledging office-seeker, Utah lawyer Orrin Hatch, in his first Senate race in '76. Finkelstein also helped venerable Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., win his toughest-ever re-election in 1978.

"We paid Finkelstein to come to South Carolina and interpret the polls," said veteran Thurmond campaign operative Henry Chandler, "And then we paid someone else to interpret Finkelstein!"

The federal election regulations that Finkelstein so loathed nonetheless provided a new opportunity for him through a particular loophole: that which permitted unlimited spending by independent efforts on behalf of candidates so long as they were truly independent and had no contact with the candidate they were supporting.

Taking his cue from that loophole, Finkelstein became a player along with the late Terry Dolan of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) in crafting individual "rogue" campaigns that helped defeat no less than six Democratic senators in 1980 and gave Republicans control of the Senate.

In his later years, Finkelstein grew bored with U.S. campaigns and became one of the first American political consultants to run campaigns abroad. He had a particular interest in Israel and helped Benjamin Netanyahu win his first term as prime minister in 1996 and the late Ariel Sharon score one of the biggest political comebacks ever when he took the prime minister's job in '01.

Finkelstein's admission later in life that he was gay was widely mentioned in reports of his death. Talking to Ari Fleischer, I asked if he knew this before Arthur made it known.

"Yes, I probably knew that since I first worked for him," Fleischer said, "But that's not what I thought of when I was with Arthur. I thought of someone who was brilliant, pleasant, and intriguing. He was one of a kind."

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Watching Arthur Finkelstein interpret the results of his polling was an experience that could only be dubbed, well, an experience. When my eyes glazed over during one of his lengthy presentations in 1980, he pulled at my tie and began undoing it until I refocused on his...
Arthur Finkelstein, Republican polling
Sunday, 20 Aug 2017 07:44 PM
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