Politicians will always tell you that they don’t pay attention to the polls, and that only one poll matters—the one on election day.
Well, that’s a half-truth. Surprised? While public polling does factor into campaign strategy, the type of pre-election day poll that really does matter is internal polling.
Public polling might generate the headlines—but whenever internal numbers are referenced or spoken of, it’s worth paying attention to.
Internal polling is shaped by mammoth sets of voter data, gathered up through several months of door-to-door and phone outreach, direct mail responses, registration drives and other means of identifying the electorate.
Internal polling offers this level of detail that no public poll, no matter how large the sample, can reliably offer. It shapes day-to-day strategy, just as much as it does for the weeks or months ahead.
In the 2008 Canadian federal election, public polling showed a tightening race heading into the final few weeks of the campaign between Stéphane Dion and Stephen Harper, who was running for a second term.
Despite the public numbers, Conservative internal polling strongly projected a substantial increase in seat count. That’s exactly what happened, as the party went from 127 to 143 seats.
South of the border, internal polling is really what’s directing Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns—especially that of Clinton, who’s continued Barack Obama’s winning strategy.
David Plouffe, architect of both of Obama’s campaigns, said last month in quite an under-reported story that Trump would have no mathematical chance in Pennsylvania—a state he must win, or he is toast.
The 2012 campaign, in particular, made brilliant use of its voter data, running an election simulation up to 20,000 times per day, ensuring the most strategic deployment of advertising or get-out-the-vote resources.
The Clinton campaign, Politico reported recently, has a similarly impressive analytics machine in place. Decisions on where and when to shift resources among states has happened alongside taking cues from the Trump campaign, which has gone from slow burn to dumpster fire.
In August, Time reported that Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus told Trump that he was on track to lose the election according to internal polling, and that he needed to drastically change course.
Trump has previously eschewed a data-driven campaign, depends too much on state and local GOP resources, and lags far behind the infrastructure Mitt Romney had four years ago.
It’s a monumental task to mobilize voters—and figure out who might need convincing or registering—as efficiently as Clinton, who has more than three times the field offices in key states. Trump didn’t start advertising until mid-August.
And those blown opportunities to gather voter data figure to be the complementary death blow to his chances, along with his toxic candidacy.
Still, he and his brain trust have at least enough data to know that it’s game over.
He’s pooh-poohed all public polling that’s shown him behind—but really, he probably decided to go nuclear when faced with the party’s grim August internal numbers that likely tightened somewhat through September, but nose-dived again.
On the morning of the final debate, veteran GOP strategist Steve Schmidt said that Clinton could top 400 electoral votes, based on internal numbers.
It’s no coincidence that her campaign, after confidently pulling ads from former battlegrounds Colorado and Virginia, is now making a push in Arizona, Missouri, and Georgia, three otherwise reliably red states that Trump must now defend.
With a week to go and with early voting well underway in most states, her campaign can now more efficiently target other voters who have not yet cast a ballot.
While Clinton has hauled in more cash than Trump and thus has more resources, it’s the reliable internal data that drives the ship and directs where they are needed most.
With over 21 million votes cast, it’s also why the sudden new developments in the FBI investigation into her emails would be too late to derail a Clinton victory.
The reality-TV star was going to lose anyway, based on his alarming lack of fitness for the presidency and inability to cast a wide enough net. But the lack of a numbers game is the icing on the cake.
Greg Gallagher is a former communications assistant in the Prime Minister’s Office. Follow him on Twitter @ggottawa.
The Hill Times