WASHINGTON — President Trump’s campaign has decided to purge some of its pollsters after a leak of dismal internal polls for the president that he denied existed.
Just two days before the president was set to kick off his bid for re-election, a top adviser said on Sunday that the campaign was cutting ties with three of its five pollsters to prevent further disclosure of survey data.
The polling showed Trump behind former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in several key battleground states, including by double digits in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The results were confirmed to The New York Times by advisers to Trump, but when they became public, he called them “fake polls.”
For days, aides to Trump have tried to figure out whom to point the finger at over the leak of the data, which jolted and infuriated the president. But in continuing to discuss it, aides violated a long-held unofficial rule of campaigns not to comment publicly on internal polling, even if the numbers leak.
The resulting furor led to an effort by the campaign manager, Brad Parscale, to tighten control. By removing several pollsters, the campaign hopes to shrink the circle of outside operatives who have access to information that could leak, according to the presidential adviser, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The rupture of the team came even as the president and his advisers were preparing for a large and elaborate rally in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday night to formally open his campaign for a second term. Trump was hoping for a show of strength as Democrats had drawn increasing attention before their first debates on June 26 and 27.
The internal poll numbers, while not predictive, painted a bleak picture of the current state of the race for Trump, at least against Biden, when they were taken in March. They showed a number of critical states at risk — not just Florida and the Midwestern states, but even some longtime Republican bastions like Georgia. A Democratic state that Trump’s aides have insisted they want to put in play, Minnesota, appeared out of reach for the president.
The polling was reported on by The Times nearly two months ago without citing specific numbers. Last week, The Times reported that Trump had told aides to deny that such polls existed and to say that other data in the survey showed him doing well.
Some aides to the president appeared to be using the episode to undermine one of his closest advisers, Kellyanne Conway, who was Trump’s final campaign manager in 2016 and is now his White House counselor. Conway’s relationship with Trump, and the praise he has given her for his 2016 victory, have long stirred envy among other advisers to the president. Her former firm, the Polling Company, was one of the ones to be ousted. Conway no longer has any formal ties to the company, which was sold in 2017 to CRC Public Relations, a well-known conservative advocacy firm.
In addition to Conway’s former firm, the Trump adviser said the campaign would cut ties with Adam Geller, a pollster for former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Michael Baselice, a pollster for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, both late additions to Trump’s campaign in 2016.
NBC News first reported the decision to oust the pollsters, although it did not identify which ones. Two other pollsters, Tony Fabrizio and John McLaughlin, will remain with the campaign. Fabrizio conducted the March survey for Trump. As a pollster, he worked for Trump’s company many years ago, but he was brought into the 2016 campaign by Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, who was one of the people charged by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. McLaughlin has known Trump for years and did informal work for him in 2011 when the real estate developer was considering running for president.
Fabrizio and Conway declined to comment. McLaughlin and the other pollsters did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In recent weeks, Trump has angrily denied receiving polls showing him losing or instructing aides to deny them. “Those polls don’t exist,” Trump told ABC News in an interview broadcast on Thursday. “I just had a meeting with somebody that’s a pollster and I’m winning everywhere, so I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
But on Friday, ABC reported specific information from that supposedly fake polling. The data obtained by ABC showed Biden leading Trump 55 percent to 39 percent in Pennsylvania, 51 percent to 41 percent in Wisconsin and by seven points in Florida. The president was leading in Texas, a bulwark for Republican presidential candidates for four decades, by just two points.
When approached by the network with the numbers, Parscale confirmed that they were accurate, but dismissed them as outdated, insisting that the president’s public standing had subsequently been helped by Attorney General William P. Barr’s initial characterization of the special counsel’s report. A redacted version of Mueller’s report has since been released, showing that it was not as favorable as Barr suggested.
“These leaked numbers are ancient, in campaign terms, from months-old polling that began in March before two major events had occurred: the release of the summary of the Mueller report exonerating the president, and the beginning of the Democrat candidates defining themselves with their far-left policy message,” Parscale said in a statement on Friday.
“Since then, we have seen huge swings in the president’s favor across the 17 states we have polled, based on the policies now espoused by the Democrats,” he said. “The president is correct that we have no current polls against defined Democrats — at all — that show him losing in any of the states we have tested.”
The more recent survey conducted by the campaign involved extensive message-testing — in other words, asking questions about support for Trump only after first describing the Democrats in negative terms, according to two people familiar with the data. Such polling methods can be useful in assessing the strength of various messages but are not considered meaningful bottom-line measures of the current state of a campaign.
NBC on Sunday reported further data from the Trump campaign polls in March. The president trailed Biden by one point in Ohio, six points in Georgia, seven points in Iowa, eight points in North Carolina, 14 points in Minnesota, 15 points in Maine and 17 points in Virginia.
Internal polls, like any other surveys, are a snapshot in time and not predictive more than 18 months from Election Day, especially with Trump’s Democratic challenger yet to be determined. Historically, they are used by campaigns to guide their understanding of where to expend resources, and of the mood of the electorate.
But Trump is famously focused on numbers as affirmation — the larger the better — and he has recoiled at suggestions that he is struggling in a general election matchup. Throughout 2016, Trump began almost every conversation with reporters by highlighting his polling lead in public surveys of the Republican primary field.
“Well, the polls I see, we’re doing great in Pennsylvania,” he said in a telephone interview with “Fox & Friends” on Friday. “We’re doing really good in North Carolina. Florida, I’m winning by a lot. Ohio, I’m winning by a lot. I just left Iowa. We’re winning that by a lot. And every poll that I see and every poll that we have, I’m winning by — we’re doing well.”
Peter Baker reported from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.