Campaign Internal Polls–and a Note To HRC

It’s not a big post-election issue, but for the record, Nate Silver does a nice job at FiveThirtyEight of sorting out the problems with internal campaign polling.

One problem is fairly obvious: internal polls deliberately released to promote the perception that a candidate is winning or gaining support. These should be handled with fire tongs as pure spin, since that’s how they are being used, particularly if campaigns are opaque about the sample they are polling and the methodology utilized. I remember a gubernatorial race in Georgia many moons ago where a campaign during the late stages of the race released absolutely nothing but bottom-line numbers from their internal polling (which for all we knew were entirely made up), showing its candidate regularly making gains towards a runoff spot. The local media pretty much bought it, and lo and behold the candidate squeaked through to a runoff spot.

But Nate goes on to observe that even polls kept private (or inadvertantly leaked) can be dangerously skewed:

A pollster working within a campaign may face a variety of perverse incentives that compete with his ability to produce the most accurate possible results to his candidate. He may worry about harming the morale of the candidate or the campaign if he delivers bad news. Or he may be worried that the campaign will no longer be interested in his services if the candidate feels the race is hopeless.

Groupthink and confirmation bias are also risks in any organization, particularly under the stress of the end stages of a political campaign.

So should the campaigns simply give up on conducting their own polls – and instead base their decisions on the forecasts issued by Real Clear Politics or FiveThirtyEight?

If internal polls were solely used to diagnose the state of the horse race, then there might be an argument for this — at least in presidential elections, where the public polling is normally quite reliable.

But the campaigns also use internal polling for message testing and a variety of other purposes. And they may desire a more granular take on the race than the public polls provide — for example, in an effort to measure the effectiveness of an advertisement in a particular media market, or among a particular demographic subgroup. Pollsters like Mr. Newhouse are an important part of campaigns, and most of them do their jobs well.

Campaigns should foster organizational cultures in which their pollsters are enabled to provide the most value.

Campaigns might consider how pollsters are compensated; they could tie some of the pollster’s compensation to the accuracy of its final polls, for instance.

Those are excellent ideas. But Nate makes one more comment worth noting:

But most important, campaigns would be wise not to have their pollsters serve as public spokesmen or spin doctors for the campaign. Campaigns have other personnel who specialize in those tasks.

The role of the pollster should be just the opposite of this, in fact: to provide a reality check such that the campaign does not begin to believe its own spin.

I don’t know what Mark Penn’s relationship with Hillary Clinton is like these days. But if it’s still strong, and she runs for president in 2016, she should probably reconsider her 2008 decision to let Penn in front of the cameras regularly as her “strategist.” Aside from the fact that he was, by most accounts, not the most effective public spokesman, his real value to her should have been confined to polling and truth-telling, not public spin or (as was widely reported) the leader of a campaign faction engaged in vicious internal struggles.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.