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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Did Trump release poll data too early? FEC’s final rules don’t answer that question.

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When President Donald Trump said last year that he’d pay more attention to poll numbers if they were better, both Trump and his supporters got what they wanted: A declaration of a presidential candidacy that never materialized, but never surrendered either.

This year’s signoff might be different, especially if any changes in the Federal Election Commission’s rules on disclosure after the 2018 midterms are enacted.

Until the FEC overhauled a version of the rules this week, political consultants and campaign veterans were required to send any “serious” expenditure, like a poll, from the latest three months of a campaign to the commission. That filed form held enormous value for news organizations, which relied on it in conjunction with records from the Federal Election Commission’s own publicly available public file to piece together who the biggest spending campaigns were.

Since Trump’s election, the FEC has responded to criticism and proposed better disclosure rules by opening the public file to in-house analysts, and shifting some of the burden from outsiders to in-house researchers. The previous rules made it essentially impossible for a news organization to report a poll as “taken” until the FEC released its report, thus preventing any analysis of who was paying for it.

Now, that info would be public, but the new rules would require news organizations to file an application to see it. That way, campaign aides could deny the lobbyist or contractors who paid for the poll, or the people who conducted it, a chance to make an objection. In theory, a campaign could either say they were satisfied with the results, or post a voluntary denial to the FEC.

A spokesperson for Trump’s re-election campaign, which filed a 70-page questionnaire on Tuesday that it demanded the Times turn over for inspection by Friday, explained it by citing the argument that Trump would have been swayed by “opinion polls that were outside the news” if they were delayed.

But the FEC’s chief counsel’s office acknowledged as much in a final staff recommendation this week that it could not deliver political poll information in a timely manner. That meant, the office said, that if the FEC adopted the new rules, the data released under the new rules would be significantly delayed, potentially putting news organizations in the unfortunate position of canceling their coverage of the campaign and returning the public file “early” but again proving that something hadn’t really happened.

Instead, that plan puts an end to the issue, and upends one of the guiding principles of the Post-Citizens United era.

Staffers from the FEC’s enforcement division attended the Times story on the story, the Times’ legal editor said on Thursday. The Times would plan to apply for the new disclosures when the FEC actually proposes them, which is expected after the midterms.

The commission was expected to vote on the changes on Thursday.

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