Why Do Journalists Bother to Report on “Internal Polls”?

Journalists rarely meet a poll they don't like -- even polls conducted by the politicians themselves that (shockingly!) show that they're not doing as bad as evidence may suggest.

In the history of American politics has a poll ever been conducted that political reporters were unwilling to cite? The question occurred to us in recent days, as speculation continued to swirl over the potential outcomes of the upcoming elections. And everywhere we looked, we found reporters propping up said speculation not only with the work of independent respected pollsters but also with the work of… dependent pollsters.

Witness the ubiquity of so-called “internal polls.”

Take today’s story on FoxNews.com, which does a bang-up job of illustrating (albeit, inadvertently) the roll that internal polls play in the political coverage in the run up to election day.

The story, “Republicans Say Base Energized by Kerry Flub,” provided a rundown of some of the major races around the country. Along the way, Fox News checked in on the closely contested senatorial race in Rhode Island.

“In Rhode Island, a noted GOP operative told Fox News late Thursday that internal polls show the race between Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse and Sen. Lincoln Chafee have closed up despite public polling to the contrary,” reported Fox News.

“We’ve got Rhode Island very close internally,” the GOP operative told Fox News. “So does the governor’s internal (poll), and a poll done for a ballot initiative has Chafee actually up a few.”

Got that? According to a GOP operative “internal polls” show that the GOP candidate is actually doing better than public polls suggest.

Moving on, Fox News turned its attention to the closely contested senatorial race in Tennessee.

“In Tennessee, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker flew ahead of Democratic Rep. Harold Ford in the latest poll, a 10-point edge for Corker that even some Republicans say seems too good to be true,” reported Fox. “[Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee head Senator] Schumer denied that Tennessee is slipping away, saying DSCC internal polls ‘show us ahead a little bit’ in the state.”

To recap: According to a Democratic leader “internal polls” show that a Democratic candidate is actually doing better than public polls suggest.

Anyone see a pattern here?

The same pattern has been on display this week at news outlets around the country. Here’s the Baltimore Sun passing along a great scoop on the senatorial race in Virginia:

Webb campaign manager Steve Jarding said internal polls showed the Senate race breaking in Webb’s favor shortly after the attack over the novels.

At the same time, the Boston Herald was busy reporting on an internal poll cited by Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey’s camp regarding her race for Massachusetts governor:

Healey said she wasn’t concerned about “old polls” that had her behind. Healey’s campaign manger Tim O’Brien said their internal polls had the race “neck and neck.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times was reporting on an internal poll cited by Democratic candidate Tim Mahoney in his race to replace disgraced representative Mark Foley in Florida:

Mr. Mahoney said a new internal poll showed not only that he was still ahead, but that the margin was widening.

In the days to come, we expect to see even more stories in which various candidates tout the results of “internal polls,” inevitably showing the race breaking in their favor. The all-important methodology of said polls will never be explained.

And, consequently, the “results” should remain “internal.”

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.