War-zone pollster

Steven Moore set up shop in Baghdad as an opinion pollster and focus-group organizer in the chaotic environs of Iraq

Photo By Steven Moore

In the sunshine of early spring, Steven Moore drove into the intersection of Third and Q streets, in Midtown. As he did so, another vehicle came out of nowhere and smashed into his car. Moore and his auto were sent spinning across the road. Shaken and bruised but, luckily, suffering no serious injuries—his car, nearly totaled, was in far worse shape than he was—the 36-year-old political consultant made his way to his doctor’s office to get checked out.

Moore had made it through the better part of a year in a war zone with nary a scratch. Now, on a quiet Sacramento street, he could have been killed. “Nine months in Iraq, and not so much as a cold,” he said, laughing. A short, stocky man with prematurely graying hair and pronounced sideburns, he has a slight hint of cockiness, possibly arrogance, in his demeanor. “I haven’t had a ticket in 10 years and haven’t had an accident in 20 years.”

Moore lives in a small second-floor apartment overlooking Fremont Park, its rooms patrolled by his ginger cat, Felipe, and crowded with heavy wooden furniture and beautiful art pieces acquired on his world travels over the past couple of decades. A few days before his car accident, walking briskly from his apartment to the Capitol to schmooze with staffers whose bosses he was hoping would become his clients, Moore, in a light brown suit and expensive brown loafers, had trodden in the remains of a rather soft avocado. Wiping the mess from his feet, he had joked about the unseen dangers of civilian life on the mean streets of Sacramento.

Until recently, Moore probably wouldn’t have been able to see the funny side of these incidents. He had left Iraq following the killing of a close friend, a democracy activist from Oklahoma named Fern Holland. Holland and he had shared hopes for Iraq’s democratic future; they both had traveled around the country conversing with ordinary residents about what they wanted and needed from the post-Saddam country. Holland and he had hired two sisters as their translators. When her convoy was ambushed, not only was Holland shot, but also her translator was killed. It fell to Moore to inform the translator’s family of her death.

Moore’s girlfriend, Heather (last name withheld), an attorney and Republican Party activist, said that for a long time afterward, despite his overall optimism about the long-term prospects for Iraq, Moore was fairly seriously depressed, anxious, jittery about the environment around him and preoccupied not just with the overall state of the world, but, more particularly, with Holland’s killing. “He talks about it quite a lot,” stated Heather, who met him shortly after his return stateside. “Fern Holland was a voting-rights activist. Her convoy was stopped in an ambush and shot up with AK-47s. He came back largely because of her death.”

Got Saddam? They do now. An example of a defaced Saddam poster in Iraq.

Photo By Steven Moore

Moore is not a soldier. Nor is he a career diplomat, a private-security operator, a war correspondent or an employee of one of the big corporations contracted to rebuild Iraq. Nobody ordered him to journey to Iraq; nobody made a decision on his behalf to relocate him there. Moore chose to enter the country shortly after Baghdad fell in the spring of 2003 so as to contribute his political-consulting skills to post-Baathist Iraq—in fact, he claims that unlike many of the highly paid private contractors who flooded into the country in search of instant wealth, he took a considerable pay cut to go there. He chose to fly in from Jordan so as to set up shop as a political consultant, an opinion pollster and a focus-group organizer in the chaotic environs of post-Saddam Iraq. It was a niche position that, perhaps not surprisingly, there didn’t seem to be too much competition to occupy.

Passionate about the need for democracy to succeed in Iraq, and with the polling data at his fingertips showing that most Iraqis across the religious divides and throughout the different regions want democracy to take root, Moore is almost equally as passionate about the fact that he really didn’t like his living conditions very much.

“Baghdad is an awful, awful place to be a Westerner,” he blurted out, after adamantly asserting that life is getting better these days for most Iraqis. “The food is a variation of meat on a stick. The people are lovely but very different from you and I. If you want to date a girl, you really can’t, because you’re afraid her brothers will hack you to death with a sword. You’ve always got to be aware when you go outside. Someone’s going to try to shoot you or blow you up.”

At first, said Moore, he was nervous that he’d accidentally stumble into the war; later, as the insurgency took off, he realized he was already in it. “It got more of ‘I’m being hunted,’” he said, a hint of amazement in his tone. “And I started wearing a flak jacket.” Photos of Moore, a participant in history yet also a tourist in a war zone, show him lounging with a somewhat startled expression in one of Saddam’s thrones, with a vast, gaudy mural of Iraqi Scud missiles above him. Tellingly, Moore’s face is covered in a full beard, grown, he admits, to help him blend in, to deflect unwanted attention from insurgents anxious to take a potshot at, or perhaps kidnap, a foreigner.

Staying just outside of the Green Zone—“the Green Zone is for pussies,” he said, his tone deliberately spoofing that of the hard-bitten, cynical war traveler—in a hotel called the Al-Hamra, Moore and his friends would have picnics on their roof. From there, they would watch the dust storms kicked up by the desert or witness the mortars regularly lobbed by insurgent fighters into the Coalition Provisional Authority’s heavily fortified inner sanctum. Other times, they’d sit indoors, eating pizza and drinking bottles of wine or beer as the good, the bad and the ugly that is post-Saddam Iraq took shape outside.

“Iraq is a difficult place to do anything,” said Moore’s friend Sean O’Sullivan, a staffer with a humanitarian group named JumpStart International that surveyed war- and looting-damaged buildings before stabilizing those that could be saved and demolishing those that couldn’t. “The amazing thing is that Steve was very successful in starting an operation there and building it to about 30 people. I admire him greatly for being able to get something started out of nothing—to go into the unknown and produce concrete results. He had surveys and training classes. They’d do focus groups not only to try to raise awareness of democracy, but also just to get feedback on what the government should be doing.”

Steven Moore accessorizes with body armor while on the street.

Photo By Stephanie Sinclair

Even before Holland’s killing, however, Moore was getting pretty sick and tired of the grueling regularity of the violence. “I began asking myself, ‘How much longer do I want to be here? What do I want to accomplish?’” In the end, he concluded he didn’t want to be there any longer. “Longevity is a much better way to change the world than persistence,” he said somewhat ruefully. “So, I was just done in Iraq.”

And so, nine months after his arrival—the gestation period for a human being—the focus-group organizer returned to Sacramento a different person. Weary he might have been. But, at the same time, he was optimistic. He had a sense of the potential for Iraqi democracy, and he wanted to spread his message back home in the United States.

But all of this is jumping ahead of the story.

Moore was born in Loma Linda in the late 1960s. His parents were students, not yet ready to have children. And so, the infant was given up for adoption at birth. For the next few years, Mr. and Mrs. Moore and their adopted child lived in Ontario in Southern California. Then, when he was 4 years old, the family moved to Oklahoma.

When Steven Moore was 15 years old, his adoptive father died of lung cancer. Four years later, the adoption agency contacted Mrs. Moore to let her know that Steven’s biological mother was interested in making contact with him. It took Steven three years and a whole lot of soul-searching before he decided that he actually did want to meet her.

In the fall of 1989, Steven Moore’s mother flew out from California to Oklahoma and visited. That Christmas, Moore made the return trip west. His biological mother was still friends with his father, George Gorton, a conservative political consultant in Sacramento who counted Pete Wilson among those in his social circle, and during that trip Gorton and Moore became friends. “I call him George,” Moore explained. “It’d be really weird to call him Dad. We have a relationship more like brothers than like father-son.”

Focus-group leader Steven Moore poses with a group of Iraqis after a seminar in Hillah.

Photo By Hillary White

Gorton invited his son to return in the summer of 1990, after he’d graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a journalism degree and a minor in English, to intern at Gorton’s consulting company. And it was that summer that Moore realized his love of political minutiae. “I licked the envelopes [like other interns],” he remembered. “And then, George and I would go to his house and look over poll results for fun. It was really good. I found out I really like polling. I really like public opinion.”

Perhaps, after all, genetics really is destiny. From that summer, Moore was hooked. From then on, too, he was soured on Oklahoma. A moderate Republican—of the secular, Schwarzenegger strand of the party, rather than the fire-breathing, hell-and-damnation wing—the young man decided that the heartlands weren’t for him. “I looked at a map,” he recalled, smiling slightly, “and said, ‘Where would be the farthest place I could get to from Oklahoma?’” Moore moved to Australia and spent several months hitchhiking around Down Under.

For the next few years, he alternated between Sacramento, where he would work on political campaigns for an assortment of Republicans—including Pete Wilson, by then the governor of California—and traveling the world.

In 1996, a wealthy Russian banker surreptitiously hired Moore and several other American consultants to shore up then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s dismally creaky re-election campaign. They were brought in to teach spin, to set up focus groups and demonstrate polling techniques, and to work out a strategy to make the oft-drunken Yeltsin shine.

Moore moved to Moscow, to a place in which politicians and their henchmen routinely were targeted by assassins. The mayor of Moscow’s running mate was blown up in a car bomb; the mayor of St. Petersburg’s campaign manager had acid thrown in his face. The banker and his American consultants would drive around town in armored Mercedeses, a bevy of automatic-weapon-toting bodyguards in tow.

In secret meetings with Yeltsin’s daughter Tatiana, convened by the banker—meetings in which the mogul would pace the conference room, his jacket off and a pistol visible above his trousers—the team would issue advice on how to use American political strategies to give buoyancy to the leader, at a time when his approval ratings were as low as 6 percent. The focus groups that Moore and his colleagues conducted indicated huge numbers of Russians believed Yeltsin was either a tool of the CIA, was in league with the Chechens or was simply too stupid to govern. Go negative, the Americans urged the Yeltsin people. Unless the Yeltsin camp could foster even worse perceptions of its opponents, in particular of the resurgent Communists, than existed of its own man, Yeltsin’s re-election prospects were poor.

Moore attends a lecture for Iraqi female activists, discussing how to get power for women in a democracy.

Photo By Ali Timimi

The message hit home. Yeltsin’s people went negative, in the finest tradition of American politicking, and his poll numbers started to go up—in much the same way as the unpopular Pete Wilson’s numbers had during a re-election campaign in which he repeatedly played the tough-on-crime card and accused his opponent of coddling criminals. Five months after he’d arrived, Moore returned back to Wilson’s California. Shortly afterward, Yeltsin got re-elected. And a few years later, the Showtime cable channel made a movie about the U.S. consultants, titled Spinning Boris. Moore himself wasn’t portrayed in the movie—although Gorton was—but, Moore said, a trace defensively, “I put together a memo every day recapping the day’s events … much of which made it in the movie.”

Over the next few years, Moore worked mainly in San Diego—for a dot-com startup and then as a consultant for then-Mayor Susan Golding. Looking for the next chapter in his life to unfold, he got accepted into a program in international business at Thunderbird Graduate School in Arizona. Graduating in December 2000, he got a job with a venerable, time-tested consulting firm just in time for the firm to file bankruptcy.

Thus, when the world as we knew it was shattered on the morning of September 11, 2001, Moore was unemployed, antsy from having stayed stateside for too long, and looking for a new focus. September 11 provided that focus.

“I spent days watching the TV,” he said. “At some point, making money became less important than using my skills to help ease tensions in the world. I had heard about the International Republican Institute, and I started pursuing a job there.”

The IRI was a Cold War-era nonprofit organization set up by the National Endowment for Democracy during the Reagan years and designed to promote an American vision of pluralism in countries that, traditionally, hadn’t had much wiggle room to develop political freedoms. At least, that’s how IRI supporters viewed it.

“The job,” Moore stated, just a trace uncritically, “is to make democrats [of the small-D genre, rather than the U.S. political-party variety]. Just by virtue of the fact that you grew up in a democracy, you know far more about how democracy works than the leaders of, say, Indonesia, East Timor, Russia—all places I’ve worked.”

Mortars and beers on the balcony: Steven Moore and a few friends on the 10th floor of a hotel, watching mortar shells come over the hotel and strike in the Green Zone.

Photo By Steven Moore

Of course, IRI wasn’t just about molding supporters of political openness and liberty; it was about making a particular kind of democratic citizen, sympathetic to the United States and in tune with rhetoric that equated free-market economics with political freedom. Critics point out that IRI’s board is stacked full of prominent Republicans, businessmen and Cold War strategists. IRI and other ideologically similar groups, say such observers, talked the talk about democracy when it suited them but turned a blind eye to administration-sponsored strongmen and juntas in Latin America and other Cold War hotspots when the need arose.

In the post-Cold War world, however, support for anti-Communist juntas has gone out of fashion fairly comprehensively (excluding countries such as Pakistan, where military strongmen are deemed, by Washington’s foreign-policy apparatus, necessary in the fight against Islamic extremism), and democratic institutions have begun to take root even in places that had languished for years under American-sponsored dictatorships, such as Indonesia.

“A job was open in Indonesia,” Moore recalled of his initial hiring by the organization. “They’d just had their first democratic election. So, I got a job there. I moved to Jakarta,” the capital of a country that, the consultant pointed out, is the largest Muslim nation in the world. As a consultant, Moore’s job would be to advise political players on how to craft a political landscape in which democratic political behaviors would become the norm.

Moore found that working in the newly democratizing Indonesia was, in many ways, not too dissimilar to his post-Soviet Russian experience. “The tools are all the same,” he said, explaining the nation-hopping. “In some cases, the first leaders elected after the overthrow of a totalitarian government don’t understand that they have to be responsive to the needs of the voters. Polls and focus groups work the same in every country in the world.” Many pundits say that polls are overused in the United States, but they are underused most other places. “If you ask people their opinion about what their government should do, then the government does it, in nine out of 10 cases the favorable opinion of the government leader increases. Smart leaders get it. Less-smart leaders don’t stay leaders long.”

The consultant is proud of the expanse of his work over the years. “I’ve probably done 300 to 400 focus groups, most in a non-English language,” he said. In such situations, Moore relies on local translators to back up the skills that he brings with him from America.

When the island of Bali was ripped by powerful explosions in the fall of 2002, Moore worked on polling locals on attitudes surrounding terrorism, tourism, political tensions and the like. Afterward, he bought a painting by a local artist: abstract figures dripping with blood, a sort of Indonesian equivalent of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Today, it adorns Moore’s living room, a permanent reminder of the chaos just below the surface.

Steven Moore today, in Sacramento, with a map of Baghdad.

Photo By Larry Dalton

As the buildup to war in Iraq intensified through 2002 and early 2003, Moore was ambivalent. It was, he felt, an extraordinarily risky choice. But, when the Bush administration made the decision to invade, Moore felt it was vital that democracy take root in the occupied country. “Once we went in, my thought was it had to turn out right. You can’t go in and not make it right,” he said.

Living in Indonesia, he badgered his IRI bosses to transfer him to Iraq, where the organization recently had rented out the 10th floor of the Al-Hamra hotel, not much more than a stone’s throw from the newly consolidated Green Zone—the nerve center of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s operation.

In July 2003, Moore journeyed to Jordan, where a company named Air Serv—which specializes in flying employees of not-for-profit organizations into what are euphemistically termed “garden spots”—flew him into Baghdad. “We called it ‘Inshallah,’ meaning ‘God Willing,’” Moore remembered. “You get on the plane. It’s one of those 20-seat turbo-prop jobs. It’s surreal. A voice says, in an Australian accent, ‘Gaa-day, and welcome to Quantas link.’ It was really surreal.”

Moore was working for IRI, but, in that capacity, he also was on call for Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer’s team, which needed a way to find out what some of the core concerns of ordinary Iraqis were. So, Moore began hiring people to roam around the country, building up a cadre of, he estimates (somewhat overstepping O’Sullivan’s guess), about 70 operatives spread over about a dozen cities. He taught them how to generate random samples. He taught them how to frame questions: questions on hopes and fears, on expectations and assumptions, on economic needs, on attitudes toward American forces, and on what kind of political system people wanted to see established.

The polls that Moore helped craft and analyze suggested that approximately three-quarters of Iraqis wanted to vote in national and regional elections. The numbers generated indicated that close to half of the Iraqis wanted coalition forces to remain in the country until elections were held (although about as many wanted the foreign troops to leave immediately). The respondents hinted that a majority of Iraqis believed foreign jihadists were instigating many of the attacks on Americans and Iraqis working with them.

Moore would send memos to Bremer’s office on a near-weekly basis, would meet with his staffers frequently, and, on at least two occasions, met with Bremer himself. Moore found, somewhat to his surprise, that Bremer was both a fast learner and an extremely engaged individual, interested not just in the broad themes of Moore’s work, but also in the smallest details.

At the state Capitol, Steven Moore schmoozes in the hallways, creating consulting business for the firm he owns with his father.

Photo By Larry Dalton

When the two homegrown Iraqi nongovernmental organizations that were involved in generating polling data needed help with methodology, with how to generate random samples and with how to mold polling questions to yield the most accurate answers, Moore, along with State Department and Coalition Provisional Authority statisticians, was on hand with technical advice. His teams traveled the country—not to Fallujah, the epicenter of anti-American violence, but to other trouble spots, such as Tikrit and Samarra, known for their hostility to Americans—generating polls out of most major urban areas. They held focus groups, with participants being recruited via word of mouth, and they played a continual cat-and-mouse game with insurgents and terrorists. The exact time and location of each event would remain a closely guarded secret in much the same way as the illegal raves of yesteryear bounced between venues, their locations publicized only at the last minute via cell-phone calls and various other means of subterfuge.

“You want people who aren’t going to bring in a bomb,” said Moore sardonically. “But you don’t want everybody to know everybody. It’s about building a network. You start out with a network of 50 to 100 people working for us in some fashion. I got there in July and started meeting people through sources I could trust. They brought in their people, and I hired them. And they brought in their people. We had Kurds, Shia, Sunni. And ultimately we had people who had family in every province in Iraq. We’d describe the focus group and not invite people ’til the day before [so they couldn’t plan attacks]. And we’d never do two focus groups in the same place.”

Writing in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal shortly after his return from Iraq, Moore wrote that “the vast majority of Iraqis—72 percent—see the same benefits in democracy as Americans do: the hope of peace, stability, and a better life. Most polls show that a no less sizable majority of Iraqis (75 percent) are moderate democrats— supporters of political pluralism and multiparty elections—and want to vote for their leaders rather than have religious clerics appoint them.”

Of course, Moore’s numbers are not uncritically accepted. In fact, his work has produced a torrent of reactions among bloggers seeking to put in their two cents on the war, the state of the world and the political realities of the moment. Type Steven Moore’s name into Google, and scores of pages come up, most of them blog-site reactions to his polling, to his methods and to his claims of nonpartisanship. For bloggers who support the American-led war, Moore is a hero, an on-the-ground answer to armchair critics; for opponents, he is a propagandist whose focus groups and poll samples were—if not deliberately, then perhaps inevitably—dominated by respondents sympathetic enough toward the Americans to at least participate in such information- gathering events. In October 2004, for example, in one fairly representative critique, a writer for the San Francisco Independent Media Center accused him of producing “the typical republican propaganda about Iraq.”

When Moore returned to California in the spring of 2004, he was all but consumed by a desire to get out his side of the story on Iraq. Fern Holland’s murder certainly had soured him on daily life there, but it hadn’t dampened his enthusiasm for the democratizing project as a whole; nor had it lessened his optimism that, ultimately, the history books would look favorably on the decision to topple Saddam Hussein.

And so he set up a starkly ideological Web site, The Truth About Iraq (at http://thetruthaboutiraq.org), that accused the mainstream media of downplaying all the good things that were going on in the post-Saddam country; accused the Democrats’ candidate for the presidency, John Kerry, of misunderstanding the world situation; and denounced opponents of the intervention who failed to acknowledge the on-the-ground complexities of Iraq. And he began appearing on TV shows—including Geraldo’s—and at college campuses to speak about his experiences.

In late 2004, after the release of the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, he even issued an e-mail challenge to filmmaker Michael Moore to debate the issues. Whether Moore v. Moore would have drawn the blockbuster crowds that both men seem to feed on isn’t known. The big Moore, the one from Flint, Mich., didn’t respond to the challenge.

Meanwhile, Gorton invited Steven to join the political-consulting firm as a partner, and the firm took on the name of both father and son.

During the 2004 election season, Moore worked the crazy hours that are the lot of all political consultants during such months. It served, he acknowledges, as a distraction, helping him to avoid wallowing in his Iraq memories.

Then, afterward, the quiet set in. Or rather, The Quiet. He had time to reflect on his Iraq experience and to talk about Holland’s killing. He had time to work on personal relationships and to do household chores like shopping for wares at Bed Bath & Beyond. He had time to realize he was jumping when he heard loud noises in the street and to focus on overcoming these postwar twitches. He had time, in short, to try to soft-land back into the world of the humdrum and the normal.

Now, when he isn’t speaking about his work in Iraq, Moore’s doing what so many others in this capital city do. He’s pounding through the halls of the Capitol, talking with men and women who can talk with men and women who can hire Moore and keep the dollars flowing in. Or he’s doing make-work—such as organizing focus groups on various mortgage packages—simply to pay the bills.

But always at the back of his mind is Iraq. “I find I have a lower tolerance for people in America who complain,” he stated. “All my friends in Iraq had family members taken away and tortured or killed [under Saddam]. That’s a problem. Traffic is not a problem. Sixty percent of Iraqis turned out to vote [in the recent elections], under the threat of death. To vote on their future. As a political consultant in California, I look at the weather report—because if it’s going to rain, some people won’t come out to vote.”