The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s internal poll numbers are out. And both they and his team’s response paint a bleak picture.

President Trump spoke to reporters in the Oval Office on June 12, saying, "I'm not a huge believer in polls." (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

For days, President Trump has denied a New York Times report that his internal polling data showed him in deep trouble in key states in 2020, claiming the Times simply made up the numbers.

It didn’t. He made up the denial. And it appears he is in as bad a shape as the Times said he was.

ABC News has obtained the polling data, which show as bleak a picture for Trump as the Times has indicated. Trump trails Joe Biden by 16 points in Pennsylvania, 10 points in Wisconsin and seven points in Florida, and the president leads by just two points in red Texas. These numbers largely echo the limited public polling we have been seeing on the 2020 general election, which is also brutal for Trump and which he also claims is bogus.

The numbers are remarkable. But just as remarkable is what the Trump campaign is saying about them.

First, it is important to note that, after days of Trump denying the numbers were real — “They reported Fake numbers that they made up & don’t even exist,” he said — his campaign confirms they are. Campaign manager Brad Parscale told ABC News the numbers are indeed legitimate but they are old — from March.

The fact that Trump falsely denied this data existed is important to emphasize — even for a president for whom these false denials have become so commonplace.

But perhaps the bigger takeaway from Parscale’s comment is this: They know how bad Trump’s numbers are, and to pump them up, they are apparently relying upon something called an “informed ballot.”

Here’s what Parscale told ABC: "Since [March], 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. For example, the plan to provide free health care to illegal immigrants results in an 18-point swing toward President Trump.”

To the layperson, that looks as though he is saying there has indeed been movement in Trump’s direction. But if you look closer, it seems as though Parscale is not just talking about straight head-to-head matchups; he is talking about polls that rely upon respondents being primed with certain issues.

For example, pollsters will often test how their issues perform by taking an initial head-to-head and then informing the respondent of their candidate’s or their opponents’ positions on something. “What if we told you these Democrats are all socialists who want to ban hamburgers and open the borders to every member of MS-13?” or something like that. That is what Parscale is referring to when he says “the plan to provide free health care to illegal immigrants results in an 18-point swing toward President Trump.”

Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh on Thursday also seemed to indicate the campaign’s claims of good polling numbers were based upon these kinds of informed ballots.

“The new data tested issues Dems are running on," Murtaugh tweeted. "In all 17 states polled, POTUS leads.”

Again, this seems to suggest Trump leads only when respondents are primed after the polls “tested issues Dems are running on.” There is no way Trump, with an approval rating of about 40 percent, leads in every state tested without manipulating the matchup in some way.

I asked the Trump campaign to confirm or deny they are referring to informed ballots. It has declined to comment further.

Why does this matter? For one, I have long said that if you are talking about the informed ballot, you are losing. If the campaign needs to resort to these numbers, that says a lot.

And second, we do not know what kind of issue descriptions there are. Sometimes these informed ballots are done for legitimate reasons; sometimes they are hugely slanted statements, like the one above, intended to goose the polls and make them as rosy for the candidate as possible.

In any case, they quite simply cannot be relied upon. And the fact that the Trump team is apparently playing them up suggests the situation is as bad as the Times — and the public polling — suggested.