Pollsters make a living being public opinion experts. But 2016 has been a tough year for the polling industry after the overwhelming majority of the “experts” were flat out wrong on two of the world’s most significant events — Brexit in the U.K. and the presidential election in the U.S. However, a polling firm with close ties to Alabama correctly called President-elect Donald J. Trump’s improbable victory, and their insight helped propel him to the White House.
McLaughlin & Associates is a public opinion research firm based in New Jersey, but the brothers who lead the company — John and Jim McLaughlin — have been the most influential Republican pollsters in Alabama for years.
“Back in the last century, I worked for Gov. Fob James when we had a 20-point come-from-behind win for governor in 1994,” John told Yellowhammer. “Then I worked for Jeff Sessions in his first race for senate and subsequently Senator Shelby. Since then Jim has carried on the work for Senator Shelby with a big win in the primary this year. He also works for Congressmen (Mike) Rogers and (Robert) Aderholt, among others.”
A closer look at the firm’s client list reveals a who’s who of Alabama politics:
Governor Bob Riley, Attorney General Bill Pryor (who is now on Trump’s short list for the Supreme Court,), Senate President Pro Ten Del Marsh, Attorney General Luther Strange, Lt. Governor Steve Windom, the Business Council of Alabama, and dozens of state house and senate members. Perhaps most notably, Jim McLaughlin was the pollster behind Republicans’ successful effort to take control of the Alabama legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
During this election cycle, both McLaughlin brothers were involved in different aspects of the Trump effort.
John was the internal pollster for the campaign and Jim worked for a pro-Trump Super PAC. This gave their firm the opportunity to play an outsized role in the ultimate victory, but also presented some challenges. Because FEC rules ban coordination between campaigns and outside groups, the brothers were strictly prohibited from talking to each other about strategy.
“We took the firewall very seriously. But I’m sure it drove our family crazy sometimes. When you’re involved in politics but can’t talk about the biggest election of the year, that can get awkward,” Jim laughed.
John’s work for the campaign extended back to the primary, when most pundits assumed Trump did not have a real chance of winning.
“Basically in my work for the Trump campaign, I helped him recover from losing Wisconsin, to win New York and the Northeast handily,” John explained. “Then we made sure we beat Ted Cruz in Indiana to seal he nomination.”
Even after winning the nomination, Trump was considered a long-shot candidate against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and the entire Washington, D.C., establishment. But John saw something in his polling that suggested Trump had a better chance than most people thought.
“Going all the way back to last September, we’ve known Americans wanted to change directions and move away from the policies of President Obama, 56% to 34%,” said John. “I urged Mr. Trump to press his message of change as his most important theme.”
Jim saw the same thing in his polling as well, and noticed that working class voters — many of whom either voted Democrat or didn’t vote at all in recent past election — were attracted to Trump’s message on trade and immigration. As a result, the vast majority of the super PAC’s closing budget was spent in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, two states that Republicans had not won since 1988.
As Mr. Trump would say, it worked BIG LEAGUE.
By the last week of the campaign, Trump had won over roughly 90% of the voters who were looking for change, and winning traditionally blue states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin helped propel him to a runaway Electoral College win.
“That was our pathway to victory,” said John. “It also allowed us to win in the Sunbelt states and expand into a majority of the Rust Belt states. Mr. Trump was able to energize working middle class men and women in the heartland to vote for him to send a message to the DC political establishment.”
It’s safe to say the establishment got the message loud and clear.