Pollster and pundit Terry Madonna might just be the most identifiable political figure in Pennsylvania
They had seen him on television, heard his voice on the radio and read his words in the newspaper.
So when the guest speaker was introduced to dozens of bankers having lunch in a ballroom of the Wyndham Garden Hotel in York early in June, he really needed no introduction at all.
It wasn’t as if they didn’t already know him.
Terry Madonna is Pennsylvania’s premier political pundit, and he may just be as famous as the politicians he talks and writes about.
For the next hour, he entertained the bankers, gliding around the room, preaching politics and explaining in everyman language the complicated nature of the 2016 presidential election. He used no script, notecards or microphone.
“We’ve seen record levels of frustration and anger and angst at government in numbers that pollsters like myself have never seen,” he told the bankers.
A little over a month later, Madonna was standing in front of a bank of television cameras at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where Donald Trump would soon accept the party’s nomination for president.
House Speaker Paul Ryan had just pleaded for party unity at the Pennsylvania delegation breakfast at the Doubletree Hilton Hotel in Westlake, Ohio. As usual, nearly a dozen reporters wanted Madonna to elaborate on the significance of what had just taken place.
Patiently, methodically, he answered each reporter’s questions for the next half-hour or so. He would do at least 15 more interviews that day, and scores more throughout the week, as he watched the Republican events unfurl.
The following week, Madonna would do the same thing in Philadelphia, where Democrats gathered to nominate Hillary Clinton for president.
Madonna is now in his fourth decade of living politics 24/7, and he shows no signs of slowing down, even after his 75th birthday, which fell between his speech in York in early June and the Republican convention in July.
Though the Pennsylvania electorate has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1988, the state has been considered a swing-state for most of the year. That has only heightened Madonna’s place in Election Season 2016.
“This,” Madonna said, “has just been the most unusual, weird, strange, unbelievable election in modern history.”
Madonna does not come from a political family. His father, George, worked odd jobs for years before becoming a tour guide at a Lancaster County tourist attraction, the Landis Valley Farm Museum. His mother, Lorraine, was a receptionist.
Neither was interested in politics, and Madonna could not recall any discussions of politics. His sister, Linda, who once ran a hospital chemistry lab, isn’t into politics either.
Madonna said that as a young boy, he spent time at the YMCA, which he called his “mischief time.” He boxed and played basketball. He described his childhood as “not much different than most.”
Madonna started attending what is now Millersville University in 1959. It took him five years to graduate because he came down with mononucleosis and missed a year. He earned his degree in social studies with an emphasis in history in August 1964.
A month later, he started working on a master’s degree at the University of Delaware, where he ultimately got a Ph.D. in political history.
It was the 1960 presidential election that got Madonna hooked on politics. He was fascinated by John F. Kennedy’s campaign, and he thought Kennedy appealed to his generation of young adults. “His style and ability to connect, his approach to the future – I felt engaged for the first time,” Madonna said.
He worked on local Democratic campaigns, including going door-to-door for candidates, in the early ‘60s while he was still in school. The first big-name political candidate he worked for was Milton Shapp, who was elected Pennsylvania governor in 1970 and reelected in 1974.
Madonna held office himself one time. In 1971, he was appointed as a Lancaster County commissioner to replace someone who had died in office.
In 1972, Madonna ran for the state House of Representatives, but he lost by 500 votes. That happened to be the same year that Democrat George McGovern lost by a landslide as Richard Nixon won reelection.
Between 1972 and 1986, Madonna was on the faculty of Millersville University, but he was on leave from 1980 to 1986, when he served as president of the union that represented professors at Pennsylvania’s state-owned colleges and universities.
He also taught part-time in the Harrisburg evening division master’s program of the University of Pennsylvania from 1980 to 1986.
In 1986, he became the head of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University.
Somewhere before the 1988 presidential election cycle, Madonna stepped into his role as political analyst. John Baer of the Philadelphia Daily News was one of the first reporters to take advantage of his knowledge and accessibility.
Baer said that when reporters reach out to academics for political analysis, they often don’t call back before deadline. Madonna is different. Baer and other reporters soon discovered that he would respond on even the tightest of deadlines.
“He became known as ‘Dial and Quote,’ ” Baer said. “That has not changed. He’s remained as in demand as he was, and even much more than he used to be.”
Baer joked that another reporter once blamed him for helping to make Madonna an “omnipresent” figure in the political world. “I’ve been credited with creating him,” said Baer, who has been covering politics for the Daily News for 30 years. “When I tell people that story, many of them say, ‘OK, well, now can you get rid of him?’ ”
Besides talking about politics, Madonna measures politics.
He founded the Keystone Poll in 1992 while teaching political science at Millersville University. He surveys the popularity of the political candidates, gauging who’s ahead in the race for president, governor or U.S. senator. He also examines what the public thinks about issues – everything from taxes on companies drilling for gas in the Marcellus Shale region to the privatization of the state-owned wine and liquor stores.
Madonna brought the poll with him when he became professor of public affairs and the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in May 2004. His Keystone Poll, which is the oldest survey conducted exclusively in Pennsylvania, was renamed the Franklin and Marshall College Poll in 2008.
The poll is widely respected and has been cited by news media across the country and sometimes around the globe.
Madonna is still at Franklin and Marshall, but he no longer teaches. Instead, he works full time as a pundit. He hosts a weekly television political talk show, “Pennsylvania Newsmakers,” that airs in the central part of the state on WGAL-TV in Lancaster, and he writes a biweekly column, “Politically Uncorrected,” which runs in seven newspapers across the state, including those in Harrisburg, Allentown and Scranton.
How ubiquitous is Madonna? His name has appeared in more than 16,500 news articles across North America since the early 1980s, according to a recent check of the Access World News database. And that figure does not count hundreds of on-air television interviews and impromptu one-on-ones with journalists who prize his analysis as background knowledge that informs their reporting.
Since the turn of the century, Madonna’s expertise has spread to other continents, mostly on the subject of presidential politics. According to that same database, Madonna has been referenced more than 40 times in Europe, from The Guardian in London to France’s Agence France-Presse. In 2008, The Sunday Times in Johannesburg, South Africa, quoted Madonna for its story on the possibility that Barack Obama would become the first African American president of the United States. News outlets in the Middle East, from the Tehran Times in Iran to The Jordan Times in Amman, Jordan, were interested in Mitt Romney’s presidential push in 2012, and Madonna was one of their sources.
Franklin and Marshall is satisfied that Madonna is a professor who does not teach. “He brings a lot of expertise about the poll. He brings a lot of exposure to the college,” said Peter Durantine, a college spokesman and former Associated Press reporter. “Having Terry here, who’s nationally known, is another thing that helps put Franklin and Marshall on the map.”
Right after the Pennsylvania delegation breakfast on the Wednesday morning of the Republican National Convention, Madonna sat in a large, empty room at the Doubletree. Sunlight penetrated the windowpanes across the ceiling and filled the room with a cool aquatic aura.
In a rare quiet moment, Madonna was meticulously editing his responses to presidential election questions that would become part of a newsletter.
“I still enjoy it,” Madonna said of his busy work schedule. “It gives me a sense of excitement.”
Later in the day, Madonna took a shuttle from the hotel to the Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland, where he went to the sixth floor to get ready to watch the convention events, which were to begin around 4 p.m.
Kevin Cirilli, a political reporter at Bloomberg News, put Madonna’s career as a political analyst into perspective. “He’s been calling it fair, straight and true for longer than I’ve been alive,” said Cirilli, who will turn 27 on Nov. 2.
Cirilli, who has been covering Trump since the beginning of his campaign, said: “Every reporter in Pennsylvania knows his voice in your story gives it instant credibility.”
Madonna’s speech to the bankers at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in York underlined the polarizing nature of 21st century politics, the animosity between Republicans and Democrats. To illustrate, Madonna told the bankers he was cutting the room in half – those on the left side would play the role of Democrats and those on the right would be Republicans.
“Now, each of you thinks that if the other party’s policies get put into effect, that it’s not just bad policy, but literally, you’re talking about the potential destruction of the republic,” said Madonna.
The comment drew laughter from the bankers, but it was laughter that fell somewhere between humor and fright.
He walked over to the right side of the room and explained to the “Republicans” the reasons they distrust government more than they ever have before. This distrust, he said, is what led to the fuming frustrations that allowed Trump, “the quintessential anti-establishment candidate,” to become the nominee.
“He was one of the first to see Trump’s appeal among Republicans in Pennsylvania.” Political reporter Kevin Cirilli
Cirilli noted that few reporters and analysts thought Trump had a chance to win the nomination. Most early polls, even Madonna’s, didn’t show Trump’s appeal.
“Terry was someone who was able to look past the initial polls and look into what was actually happening on the ground,” Cirilli said. “He was one of the first to see Trump’s appeal among Republicans in Pennsylvania.”
Baer credited Madonna with understanding the rural parts of his home state and recognizing that Trump had a legitimate shot at winning the Republican nomination.
“Pennsylvania is a great little mini-America,” Baer said. “Two big urban centers on either coast and a vast rural area in the middle.”
Madonna said in an interview that Trump’s ascension from reality television host and real estate developer to presidential nominee really dates to 2010, when Republicans took control of the House of Representatives but couldn’t pass any significant legislation.
He said voters’ disdain for the establishment GOP only multiplied when nothing changed after Republicans took control of the Senate in 2014.
“If you look at the Republican electorate, about a third to 40 percent of it is vehemently anti-establishment, particularly aimed at their own party,” Madonna said. “Trump masterfully was able to manipulate the media. He was able to use his reality TV status to a degree unlike anything we’ve seen in modern history.”
Madonna noted that even the leaked recording of a 2005 conversation Trump had with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush, in which Trump used lewd language in discussing women, did not cause the candidate to lose the confidence of his most loyal supporters.
“He literally – not arguably – insulted a variety of people and groups, and it didn’t seem to affect his core supporters, because the only thing they cared about was that he was taking it to the establishment,” Madonna said. “And that remains true today.”
Chris Borick is a professor of political science and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, Pennsylvania. For 15 years, he’s been doing much of what Madonna’s been doing for three decades.
Borick said there’s no competition between the pollsters/pundits, and he’s “glad Madonna’s so regularly cited.”
“Terry’s great,” said Borick. “Terry has been doing this a long time. He knows both polling and Pennsylvania, and that interaction makes him a very valuable resource in the sense that he can direct a very strong and methodologically sound poll.”
Politicians pay attention to Madonna.
“I’ve always appreciated any opportunities I’ve had to get political insight based on the polling that he does,” said U.S. Representative Glenn Thompson, a Republican from Centre County. “I think he does it in a very credible way.”
Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat and Pennsylvania’s senior U.S. senator, has known Madonna from the mid-1980s, when Casey’s father was making his first successful bid for governor of the state after failing three times.
The elder Casey was elected governor in 1986 and served until 1995. Even then, Madonna was a force in the state.
“What’s unique about Terry Madonna is that so much of his analysis is rooted in history,” Casey Jr. said in an email. “Terry can connect today’s events to a relevant piece of information that goes back decades.” Madonna, he added, is “a smart analyst, tough questioner and hard worker.”
“Polling is an imperfect science and so there are always times when numbers don’t line up,” Casey said. “But Terry goes about it with integrity and sound science – that’s all one can ask for.”
The senator said his father, who died in 2000, enjoyed Madonna’s company. Sometimes, he said, his father’s staff would have to “drag” Casey Sr. away from political events, because he wanted to stick around and chat with Madonna.
Each year, the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association, an organization of reporters from around the state who work out of an office in the Capitol in Harrisburg, sponsors a show called the Gridiron. Hundreds of elected officials and their staffs, political reporters and lobbyists eat dinner and watch skits in which reporters roast politicians and politicians roast reporters.
At one Gridiron, Casey Sr. was putting on a skit modeled after a “Wayne’s World” sketch from “Saturday Night Live.” Casey, wearing a wig to resemble Dana Carvey’s character “Garth,” announced that the show, which often featured pop stars and icons as guests, would have a special guest.
Indeed, “Madonna” walked onto the stage – but not the singer who was at the peak of her career back then.
“And, of course, Terry walks down the steps, and the place cracks up. It was a great little sight gag,” Baer said. “What that tells you is that everybody, even then, knew who he was, and that he was comfortable enough in his own skin to sort of make fun of himself for the governor’s humorous part of the Gridiron show.”
Of course, Madonna’s performance doesn’t include singing or acting.
The atypical nature of this year’s election hasn’t just thrown candidates and voters into a frenzy. It has made Madonna’s schedule all the more hectic. This year’s presidential election has turned what he called his normal “ferreting pace” to a “beyond ferreting pace.”
By mid-October, Madonna had given 29 speeches in 10 weeks – again, not including media interviews or appearances on radio and television shows.
It is worth noting that Madonna must prepare for all of these interactions. He reads 10 newspapers and a dozen websites each day, and he follows political reporters on Twitter.
He said new forms of media and technology have changed how he does his job. The instantaneous nature of news makes him reluctant to turn off his cell phone; he wants to be accessible.
As Borick noted about his own schedule: “It’s obviously pretty hectic when you’re in season, and certainly where we are right now. You’re in pretty high demand. There’s a great desire for poll results. The media loves it. The public seems to have a big appetite for it.”
Madonna, who has a vacation home in Florida, plays golf when he can. He said he has played almost every major golf course in Pennsylvania, and he has taken his family to Pebble Beach to play golf. He used to be a 13 handicap, but now the number is 17.
Most of his free time, though, Madonna spends with his family. He has a daughter, Robin; a son, Brintan; and five grandchildren –– Robin’s children Dylan and Nicole, who are in college, and Brintan’s children Blake (age 4), Hayley (age 2) and Layla, who is just a few months old.
Right by Madonna’s side for many of his speeches – the ones where he has to travel more than two hours from home – is his wife, Maribeth. The two have been married for 17 years.
Maribeth used to work in Harrisburg as a legislative research analyst on higher-education issues. Now, she manages her husband’s schedule, which sometimes includes days when he has two or three events on top of his five to 10 interviews with reporters.
“We work together really well. We’re really compatible,” she said. “He’s a person who loves to be front and center. He’s Type-A, and I tend to be the opposite. So it’s easy for me to do the background stuff, and it’s easy for him to do the up-front.”
Madonna does many speeches for free, including those for charitable organizations.
His “Pennsylvania Newsmakers” television show is a political roundtable that is taped in Harrisburg each week. Besides pure politics, the show delves into divisive issues confronting elected officials, which means that Madonna must stay current with what is happening in Harrisburg.
For example, at a taping in June, Madonna analyzed the news that the state was going to allow grocery stores to sell wine, an issue that had been debated for decades. The show also included discussion of the upcoming national political conventions as well as the yet-unpassed state budget.
Madonna has handwritten notes with him prior to the taping of “Newsmakers,” but he rarely uses them on camera.
Before the cameras are turned on, he jokes with his guests. Recently he and state Sen. John Pippy, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, were chit-chatting about working out and staying in shape. Madonna told Pippy, “I lie down and the urge to exercise goes away.”
When a makeup artist worked to give him more color on camera, Madonna, whose dark, slicked-back hair makes him appear younger than his 75 years, smiled and said, “My makeup bill is more than my wife’s.”
The same day, Madonna’s daughter-in-law was in labor with her third child, Layla. She had been in the hospital bed for 24 hours, and he kept his phone on him just in case his family called him with good news.
Madonna works about 60 hours a week. After the Nov. 8 election, he said, his life will remain as busy as ever. At least until Thanksgiving, he will be asked to make sense of the election results.
His work slows but never halts through the holiday season, because the start of the New Year will bring about a new president. After that he will be asked to guide reporters, politicians and others through what could be an interesting first hundred days of a new administration.
Madonna said he would also rewrite chapters of his book, “Pivotal Pennsylvania: Presidential Politics from FDR to the Twenty-First Century,” in order to account for all the monumental events that have taken place in this election cycle.
“It calms down considerably,” he said, “but there will still be a fair amount of activity. My life pretty much continues.”
He insisted that he has no intention of retiring. He is at the age now when many of his friends and former colleagues are retiring or have been retired for a while.
Maribeth Madonna says that for her husband, retirement is merely a brief passing thought. “He says, ‘I don’t think I could do that. I have to have something to do.’ ”
The fact is, Madonna loves the business he’s in.
“Politics is exciting. It has a lot of drama,” he said. “Lastly, and more importantly, it really matters for the future of our country.”
~ published 10.29.2016 ~