In defense of internal polling

(NEW YORK) — Internal polls are the middle children of the world of elections analysis: often ignored, desperate for attention and chronically misunderstood. But, also like middle children, internal polls are keen observers of their surroundings.

Most polling that makes it out into the open is commissioned by media organizations, colleges and universities, or other public interest groups — like ABC News’s surveys with The Washington Post and Ipsos. But these polls are few and far between compared with the surveys conducted every day for private interests. The phrase “internal polling” refers to surveys conducted exclusively for a campaign or political action committee to inform strategic decisions. Nearly every credible campaign for statewide or congressional office commissions its own polling, choosing from multiple private firms that span the ideological spectrum. Some of the best-funded campaigns keep pollsters on contract, tracking responses to individual questions for months at a time.

These internal polls are usually kept private, for the eyes of the campaign only. Campaigns that can afford to field their own polls have a competitive advantage, one that they’re not inclined to share with their opponents. And while media and academic polls are more likely to focus on questions gauging the political environment — head-to-head matchups in key elections, approval metrics for public figures, questions about policy preferences, etc. — internal polling is usually intended to form a campaign strategy. The client is the campaign itself, not the public at large. And internal polls often hold hints about a campaign’s strategy, testing different messages and approaches to win over voters.

But every now and then, a campaign or PAC that commissions a poll finds it beneficial to share the results with the public. Some campaigns want to show donors or major national organizations that they start off in a strong position in the race, hoping to garner early support; they might share data showing that they lead a head-to-head race or have a high favorability rating. Others publicize polling showing razor-thin margins in order to excite — or outright scare — donors and grassroots supporters. Internal polling can even be used to push opponents to drop out, showing unrecoverable levels of support.

It’s that kind of agenda that makes some political observers cast aside internal polling. But while it’s perilous to read internal polls the same way as nonpartisan polls, they are important to the political analyst tool box.

Nathan Gonzales, publisher of Inside Elections and my former editor, often says that pollsters who are commissioned to conduct internal polling have more “skin in the game.” That’s because accurate polling can mean the difference between winning or losing a campaign — and therefore, winning or losing potential clients. After House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his 2014 primary race in an upset, his polling firm, McLaughlin & Associates, found itself the target of Republican ire; just two weeks before Cantor lost, his pollster found him leading by more than 30 points.

“There isn’t a pollster alive — me included — who hasn’t had to take the walk of shame, hat in hand, to explain to an angry client why a predicted outcome simply didn’t happen,” Republican consultant Frank Luntz wrote in a New York Times op-ed in the wake of Cantor’s defeat, calling the internal poll “quantitative malpractice.” At the time, Cameron Joseph reported, “Nearly a dozen Republican strategists who’ve worked with McLaughlin over the years say they try to steer their clients elsewhere.” (McLaughlin made a comeback in 2016 when former President Donald Trump hired it as one of his pollsters.)

“It might be easy to dismiss a survey because it comes from a candidate or a party, but partisan pollsters have a vested interest in having good data because partisan polls are often used to make millions of dollars worth of strategic campaign decisions,” Gonzales told 538. “There’s a tendency to glorify public, nonpartisan polls for their accuracy and importance when I’d argue that some of those entities don’t have as much to lose as a candidate or a party if the numbers are wrong.”

Natalie Jackson now works with Democratic pollster GQR, but she previously worked for reputable nonpartisan pollsters like the Public Religion Research Institute and Marist College. “Every poll is conducted to be accurate,” she said of internal polling. “So if [the campaign is] picking one to release, they are probably being strategic about that. But it’s still an accurate poll.”

But it does take a little extra work to find the value in an internal poll. Before running with any poll, there are a series of questions you should ask yourself, such as whether the pollster is reputable and whether the poll is an outlier — both questions that can be answered (shameless plug alert) with a quick search of 538’s pollster ratings and polling database. For internal polls, however, there’s an extra question: Why am I seeing this poll in the first place?

Sometimes, when private polling makes it out into the open, it truly is a stealth move by the opposition to release internal information. In 2020, Republicans spotted a polling presentation through the windows of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the committee responsible for winning the House majority. The National Republican Congressional Committee took photos of that presentation and released them to the press.

But that kind of subterfuge is rare. Most of the time, when a private poll goes public, it’s because someone supporting the campaign who has access to the poll wants it to be seen. It’s the campaign itself — which owns the data — that releases the findings, not the pollster.

And, for people following each race, it’s usually not difficult to deduce why a campaign would want those numbers out. For example, in December, Politico published internal polling from businessman Bernie Moreno’s campaign for Ohio Senate, showing him leading the competitive Republican primary. By releasing that poll, his campaign was signaling to potential donors and endorsers that Moreno was a strong candidate. Just about a week later, Moreno won the most important endorsement in the country: one from Trump himself.

But with polls like that, what the campaign isn’t telling you is just as important. Moreno’s polling memo also revealed that the campaign had conducted another poll several months earlier showing Moreno in a weaker position that hadn’t made it to the public’s eyes, showing how much his position had improved since he started introducing himself to voters. It was a good reminder that campaigns typically won’t release internal polls that contain bad news. That means we should read the released polling as the candidate’s best-case scenario — although not an implausible one.

Journalists who report leaked polls also have a responsibility here. Internal polling is only useful when sufficient data is provided. That includes the exact phrasing of the question itself: In polling of a head-to-head race, were respondents given the political party of each candidate named? Were respondents given a “none-of-the-above” option? And, most crucially of all, before voters were asked to choose a candidate, did they hear questions that could have swayed their opinion of the candidates?

As long as political analysts read internal polls for what they are — polls conducted by reputable firms but released by parties with an agenda — they’re just another source of information to consider about an election. “I think a healthy look at a race includes partisan and nonpartisan polling, public and private polling,” Gonzales said. “I’d rather see more data than less data in order to try to identify trends and outliers.”

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

SHARE NOW