Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders presents himself as the most authentic candidate in the presidential race, and in the first two quarters of last year, he spent zero on internal polling. But this polling is essential to a successful presidential campaign, and as Sanders picked up steam, he decided to front the cash. Now, his campaign is spending at least $500,000 on polls.
The 74-year-old Sanders began as a protest candidate with the goal of elevating issues he cares about, particularly wealth and income inequality. That authenticity seems to have helped attract voters who are tired of poll-tested candidates shifting in the political winds. No surveys are needed to determine that. But with Sanders surging, his campaign appears to be evolving into one that is playing to win: MSNBC reported last week that Sanders spent $500,000 on polling last quarter, up from the $52,000 he spent in the previous quarter.
Filings from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) reveal that Sanders’s campaign spent at least $500,000 on polling between October and December 2015, but these numbers are likely lower than the actual amount, because campaigns can hide polling money by calling it different things, like “strategy consulting.”
On the Republican side, internal campaign polls in Iowa picked up what the public opinion polls failed to grasp. Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s last-minute surge — hidden from the media and the public — hit the radar for Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign, leading Cruz to attack Rubio in the final moments of the Iowa caucus.
These polls do not necessarily make a candidate inauthentic. Cruz’s campaign used sophisticated polling and data techniques to discover which local issues fired up voters in Iowa, and found sixty voters who were likely to support whichever candidate favored repealing a state ban on fireworks sales. Cruz has built his political reputation on cutting down the plethora of government regulations, so repealing such a ban was an authentic issue for him, but without the polling he wouldn’t have known that this issue had power to rile up the electorate.
Sanders has wised up on polling and is ready to join the big leagues. Will this evolution on the practicality of campaign polling open his eyes to other misunderstood political tools — like super PACs? His support from three independent super PACs (one of which spent $1.2 million for him) has not led him to alter his anti-Citizens United stump speech. Perhaps Sanders is less authentic than he seems.