Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) famously eschewed polling in the runup to his bid, instead drawing on his decades of well-known political positioning to put together a platform. It appears he has had a change of heart.
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.
A Huffington Post analysis of Sanders’ campaign filings from last year found that he spent at least $500,000, and perhaps as much as $1 million, on polling.
There is such a wide potential range because of how candidates file their expenditures with the Federal Election Commission. Sometimes candidates explicitly code their expenses as “polling” or “survey research.” But sometimes they choose to file these expenses under codes like “strategy consulting,” or under a combination of codes, that may include some polling services.
It’s difficult to say exactly how much a candidate spends on polling ”because the FEC doesn’t require candidates to report their expenditures in a way that allow viewers to tell what the money is going for,” explained Viveca Novak, the editorial and communications director at Center for Responsive Politics.
Still, spending at least $500,000 is a significant turnaround from the reported $0 Sanders spent in the first two quarters of last year.
Sanders senior adviser Tad Devine told HuffPost over the summer that their decision to forgo polling could change as the campaign moved forward if they saw a need to create more targeted advertisements.
And it looks like that time has come. Along with an increase in poll spending, Sanders has poured money into advertising in primary states: The campaign spent $10 million in Iowa and $8.1 million in New Hampshire, keeping close pace with rival Hillary Clinton, according to ad-buy data from Morning Consult. This week alone, Sanders has invested over $200,000 on radio buys in South Carolina.
Donald Trump similarly renounced the need to rely on internal polling at the start of his campaign — and he similarly has changed his tune in recent months, spending over $200,000 on survey research, according to FEC records.
Sanders’ increased poll spending is a sign that his campaign has gained momentum, said Lonna Atkeson, the director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico. Hiring pollsters and “building a bigger strategy makes sense when your campaign takes off,” she said.
Internal polling is essential to understanding how to improve a campaign and build a real ground game, Atkeson added. Having a message and relying on free media is not enough for Sanders, who she said must build a broader electorate and persuade voters.
Atkeson said she foresees Sanders becoming more reliant on polls as the primary moves forward, as he’ll need to figure out how to appeal to minority and undecided voters.
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