President Trump’s re-election campaign has fired a trio of pollsters after a series of embarrassing leaks of internal survey data. Still on the payroll: John McLaughlin, a close ally with a long history of bad data.
“His track record is spotty at best,” one Republican strategist who’s overlapped with McLaughlin on a handful of races told VICE News.
McLaughlin once had a large stable of prominent Republican candidates, but that’s been dwindling for years, as top GOP strategists have grown increasingly wary of his work following a series of polls that found his candidates in much stronger positions than they ended up on Election Day.
But to Trump, his longtime client, McLaughlin’s often-rosy numbers may be a feature rather than a bug.
The president prizes loyalty over quality, and he and McLaughlin go back decades. He also might not be too unhappy to have a good-news pollster on staff.
“The president likes people who are loyal to him. That’s true in every facet of the campaign and the White House,” said Doug Heye, a Trump critic who was a senior adviser to then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) during his 2014 primary loss.
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McLaughlin is known in the industry as someone who sometimes tells his clients what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear, say multiple Republicans who’ve worked with him on past races.
McLaughlin was Cantor’s top pollster when upstart primary opponent Dave Brat defeated him by an 11-point margin in 2014, shocking Cantor and the rest of the political world. Their surprise was genuine: McLaughlin’s survey had found his boss leading by a whopping 34 points just two weeks earlier.
The Cantor debacle led the National Republican Congressional Committee to blackball McLaughlin in 2014, cutting him off from work and encouraging top candidates not to use him.
The three pollsters reportedly fired by the Trump campaign over the weekend were Brett Lloyd, Mike Baselice and Adam Geller. Lloyd heads The Polling Company, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s old firm. Geller was the top pollster on Chris Christie’s upset win in New Jersey in 2009.
Grading on a curve
The Trump campaign shakeup happened after internal polls leaked to the public that showed the president trailing Joe Biden by wide margins in swing states and in tough reelection fights in some surprising red states. Those surveys were conducted by the campaign’s top pollster, Tony Fabrizio, who along with McLaughlin was kept on payroll.
It’s unclear why Fabrizio was kept on while the others were fired, though he’s known as a quality pollster who doesn’t pull punches.
But McLaughlin may be playing a different role.
“If I look at the cast of characters surrounding Trump, a guy like McLaughlin fits right in,” said one GOP strategist. “[Trump] likes to surround himself with people who like to tell him he wants to hear.”
McLaughlin defended Trump when the then-candidate predicted he had numbers showing he’d beat Hillary Clinton in New York four years ago (Trump lost the state by 1.7 million votes and a 22-point margin). While Fabrizio and Conway did most of the polling last cycle, he was in charge of Virginia and the Northeast for the Trump campaign, sources tell VICE News.
The nonpartisan polling website FiveThirtyEight gives Fabrizio’s firm a B, Geller’s a B+ and Baselice’s a B-. McLaughlin gets a C-.
McLaughlin didn’t return phone calls and emails requesting explanations for his past polling misses and information on what role he’ll play on the 2020 campaign. A Trump campaign spokeswoman didn’t respond to an email on the same subject.
Getting it wrong
McLaughlin had two big House clients last fall: Then-Reps. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) and John Faso (R-N.Y.). His polling for Faso was only slightly off from the final results, according to private polls shared with VICE News (he had the race tied; Faso lost by 5). But the Comstock race went off the rails.
McLaughlin churned out poll after poll showing Comstock maintaining a lead in the low single digits, even as every public poll released in the last six months of the race showed her trailing outside their margins of error.
Comstock used those numbers to make the case she was still alive to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which proceeded to dump $8 million into the district even as other GOP strategists howled that they were wasting money that could have saved other endangered incumbents. His final poll, conducted two weeks from election day, still found her in a statistical tie. She ended up losing by 12 points.
“His numbers on Comstock were awful,” said one strategist involved in the race. “Did her a disservice.”
Another Republican involved in that race gave him a bit more credit, saying that he nailed Comstock’s performance in 2014 and 2016 wins and had earned internal trust from those solid results. But his most recent work in the district couldn’t be defended.
“Obviously he was completely off,” said the source.
The Comstock results were nothing new. In 2012, before the Cantor debacle, he found statistical ties in Connecticut and Pennsylvania Senate races just weeks before the Democrats won by double digits. He had Mitt Romney leading in Virginia by seven points (President Obama carried the state by four), with former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), his client, up by three shortly before Allen lost by six.
According to his numbers that year, then-Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.) led by double digits just weeks before he narrowly lost, Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) was losing by 17 points less than a month before he won, and Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) was in a neck-and-neck race less than a month before she won with more than two thirds of the vote.
McLaughlin argued then that many of his 2012 polls didn’t match the election results because they came shortly after Mitt Romney’s strong debate performance and at the height of Romney’s numbers, which then deflated over the coming weeks, and he said he thought they’d still been accurate at the time they were conducted. He said the bad misses on the east coast were due to complications in reaching people after Hurricane Sandy, and blamed Democrats crossing over to vote against Cantor as the reason he missed so badly in that race.
McLaughlin didn’t respond to questions for this story.
But his rosy numbers, say some Trump-skeptical Republicans, may be precisely why McLaughlin is sticking around.
“Would you actually expect Trump to hire a good pollster?” one Republican who’s worked with McLaughlin texted VICE News when asked about the recent shakeup. “Hahaha.”
Cover: U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to speak during a second chance hiring and criminal justice reform event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, June 13, 2019. (Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)