Ron DeSantis’ supporters were thrilled last week when a poll emerged following the first primary debate showing him bouncing up 7 points in the critical first caucus state of Iowa.
The debate, they argued, had given the Florida governor the type of bump he needed to revive a sagging presidential campaign.
Left largely unsaid: The poll had been commissioned by a nonprofit that had hired DeSantis’ own polling firm.
Publicly released internal polling isn’t new in politics. Campaigns have been releasing or leaking their internal numbers — most often as a tool to gin up fundraising — for decades. But in the increasingly nationalized 2024 GOP primary, campaigns and allied groups are using the tactic more aggressively than in prior races.
The poll showing an Iowa bounce was put out by nonprofit group Citizen Awareness Project, which isn’t allowed to promote a candidate explicitly but hired DeSantis’ polling firm, Public Opinion Strategies. The same week, a pollster working for the super PAC backing former President Donald Trump wrote a memo of its own. That memo, published by Axios, indicated DeSantis had “flatlined” in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Another post-debate poll conducted for the Trump campaign was also “obtained” by Semafor. And it found — big surprise — that Trump was 45 points ahead of DeSantis.
It’s not just the two frontrunners engaging in the act either. Businessperson Vivek Ramaswamy’s campaign sent its own national survey to The Messenger, showing the first-time candidate leaping out of a combative debate into second place.
In fact, the five most recent Iowa polls in FiveThirtyEight’s database were commissioned by Republican groups, including the super PAC backing Trump’s campaign and the pro-DeSantis nonprofit.
But among those engaged in the release-internal-data practice, DeSantis’ team stands out as the most aggressive.
Never Back Down, the deep-pocketed super PAC supporting DeSantis’ campaign, released internal polling to NBC News as early as March of this year, nearly two months before DeSantis entered the race. The group also shared two of its Iowa surveys with Axios — one from before DeSantis’ May launch and one shortly after.
In June, Citizen Awareness Project, the nonprofit group that released last week’s Iowa poll, commissioned general election polls in three swing states — Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania. All showed DeSantis outperforming Trump in hypothetical matchups against President Joe Biden. Like the Iowa poll, these surveys were conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, the firm also working for DeSantis’ campaign.
Releasing internal polling data fills a media vacuum. It might feel like there’s a torrent of polling this far out from Election Day, but public surveys — at least those from major media outlets — are actually in decline.
Back in 2012, from Aug. 1 until Labor Day, a dozen media organizations and academic institutions released national polls of the nascent race for the GOP presidential nomination, according to the RealClearPolitics database: McClatchy-Marist, CNN (two surveys), USA Today, Fox News (two surveys), Gallup, Quinnipiac University, NBC News, POLITICO-The George Washington University and ABC News/Washington Post.
This August, only Fox News, Quinnipiac University, CBS News and The Wall Street Journal stand out as prominent groups releasing national polls. In addition to the internal polls, the void is being filled with lesser-known online firms and partisan outfits, like the Republican-aligned Trafalgar Group.
Candidates and their allies see releasing their internal polls as a corrective: Most of the public Republican polling is national, even though Republican presidential primaries use a state-by-state process in which Iowa and New Hampshire vote first.
“Now, as we enter the post-Labor Day phase of the race, you have voters in Iowa and New Hampshire that are acutely aware of the race, the attributes of the candidates and what is going on with Donald Trump,” Chris Wilson, the founder and CEO of WPA Intelligence, which is polling for Never Back Down, told POLITICO.
“They are attuned to not just who reflects their values, who is going to fight for them, but who can win a national election in November,” Wilson added, echoing DeSantis’ electability argument.
In fact, the race is different in those early states from how it is nationally. The national RealClearPolitics average gives Trump a 38-point lead over DeSantis, while Trump’s leads in Iowa (26 points) and New Hampshire (31 points) are smaller, though still commanding.
The vast majority of dollars spent by campaigns and outside groups on internal polling is not for public consumption — it’s data to drive decisions about where to invest other resources.
The week before the first debate, two surveys commissioned by Never Back Down in Iowa and New Hampshire were posted on the website of the firm run by the group’s chief strategist, Jeff Roe.
The polls were buried on Axiom Strategies’ site in an apparent effort to avoid running afoul of campaign finance laws the prohibit super PACs from coordinating with campaigns — and were promptly removed after their existence and results (showing DeSantis trailing Trump by smaller margins than some of the public polling) were reported by The New York Times.
And even at this early stage of the race, big money is being spent on polling. DeSantis didn’t officially enter the presidential race until the latter half of May — but by the end of June, Never Back Down had already spent nearly $1.5 million on polling.
Ramaswamy’s campaign has disclosed more than $1 million spent on polling, and the total between the Trump campaign and MAGA Inc. is nearly $855,000.
When internal polls are sometimes the only data available, especially in the early states, does that mean readers should trust them?
The answer is complicated. Public pollsters are graded on their accuracy, but campaign pollsters are hired and fired based on whether their polls correctly reflect the true state of the race on which they’re working.
But the public often doesn’t get the full picture with internal polls. The campaign or outside group that commissioned the poll is the one releasing it, and only a small amount of internal polling is ever made public. The motive isn’t usually accuracy — it’s affecting the media narrative or convincing donors to open their wallets.
Some polling aggregators, like FiveThirtyEight, include those internal surveys, while RealClearPolitics doesn’t.
At POLITICO, we don’t ignore internal polling — but we cover it with the full context about the sponsor’s motives and the skepticism their numbers deserve. Those are important reminders for anyone watching the 2024 Republican race right now.