Last week, a report leaked of a briefing in which President Trump learned of polling by his team that showed that he trails Joe Biden in 11 states vital to his 2020 election strategy. Rather than approach the information as a valuable tool or as a moment to recalibrate strategy, Trump reportedly told his aides to deny that the internal polling existed.
When that didn’t work, Trump axed the pollsters who’d provided him with the news. According to the New York Times, Trump aides have spent the past week or so trying to determine the source of the leak. Per the codes of the current White House, this made the problem worse: “Aides violated a long-held unofficial rule of campaigns not to comment publicly on internal polling, even if the numbers leak.” Campaign manager Brad Parscale has now reportedly removed several pollsters.
Trump, a stickler for one-way loyalty, has reportedly retained two poll experts who’ve been around since at least 2016. Tony Fabrizio, a pickup by Paul Manafort who worked on some of his efforts in Ukraine, has remained with the campaign despite an incident in 2016 when the Trump campaign tried to stiff him on a $767,000 bill for his services. John McLaughlin, who did unofficial work for Trump when he flirted with a run in 2011, will stay on as well. On the cutting floor are Adam Geller, who previously worked for Chris Christie, and Michael Baselice, who worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger — two politicians the president has had public spats with. Also let go was Kellyanne Conway’s former firm. Some aides told the Times that “the president appeared to be using the episode to undermine” Conway, who now serves as White House counselor.
It’s easy to see why Trump tried to dismiss the release of the information as “fake polls.” In Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — states vital to the president’s 2016 win and his 2020 strategy — Trump was behind Biden by double digits. Voters in Georgia, a reliably red state, favored Biden by six points. Voters in Minnesota, which Trump has targeted as an aspirational state, seem beyond reach, as he’s down 14 points.
In an immediate sense, these general polls are alarming for the president: His own team determined that his map to reelection could lead nowhere. (Also concerning for the campaign is his choice to ignore the information: General polling is essential for gauging voter interest and testing out where to invest resources.) But generals over a year out from the big day are historically worthless as a method of prediction, as FiveThirtyEight noted in 2015: “If you look at polls that tested the eventual Democratic and Republican nominees in the last two months of the year before the election, the average absolute error of the polling average is 10.6 percentage points.” To put it another way, Trump is currently trailing five Democratic candidates, according to a Fox News poll released Sunday, with a ten-point margin separating him and Biden. That’s better than four years ago, when he was trailing Hillary Clinton by 17 points.