Jim and John McLaughlin occupy a fraught space in Trump World as pollsters for a president who runs on gut instinct and disparages the polling industry that failed to forecast his shocking 2016 election victory.
The McLaughlin brothers, both of whom are on the Trump campaign’s 2020 polling team led by Tony Fabrizio, have become trusted confidants for Trump, particularly on the hot-button cultural issues the president uses to highlight rifts between middle America and coastal “elites.”
The pollsters have also become visible spokesmen for the campaign through appearances on Fox News, where they’ve discussed the president’s polling strength or what they view as Democratic blind spots.
As pollsters for scores of Republican candidates in the House and Senate over the years, as well as for GOP presidential campaigns dating back to businessman Steve Forbes and former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the McLaughlins have bridged the gulf between establishment Republicans and Trump, whose disruptive tendencies have exposed a divide within the GOP.
“John McLaughlin is one of the sharpest and most seasoned minds in politics,” said Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary under President George W. Bush. “He’s hard-nosed, realistic and battle-tested, and he knows what to look for in voters who can be moved.”
The McLaughlin brothers declined to be interviewed for this story, but those who know them detailed their decades-long political work in the Tri-state area, where they ran in the same circles as Trump, Fabrizio, White House economic adviser Larry KudlowLawrence (Larry) Alan KudlowMORE, former Trump adviser Roger StoneRoger Jason Stone3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 Judge rejects Stone's request to dismiss charges Judge dismisses DNC lawsuit against Trump campaign, Russia over election interference MORE, and others who would become central figures in the president’s orbit.
The McLaughlins met Trump for the first time in 1986 at an event for former Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.) at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City, which Trump owned at the time. Trump was there with boxing promoter Don King.
After consulting for Trump in the 1980s, the two worked primarily for the firm run by Arthur Finkelstein, the legendary GOP operative who served as a pollster for former Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
There, they began a multi-decade partnership with Fabrizio, the Trump campaign’s primary pollster.
The brothers launched a polling firm with Fabrizio in the 1990s before John McLaughlin left to launch McLaughlin & Associates in 1995. Younger brother Jim McLaughlin joined him in 2001.
The brothers found themselves on different presidential campaigns in 1996. John McLaughlin was the pollster for Forbes, while Jim McLaughlin was a pollster for the Dole campaign.
But they came together in 2011 when former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTrump, DOJ ask appeals court to block NY tax return subpoena Federal judge declares Trump border proclamation unlawful 2020 general election debates announced MORE’s adviser Dick Morris reintroduced them to Trump, who was at the time mulling a challenge to then-President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaReducing NSC staff places Trump on right side of history The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by USAA — Ex-Ukraine ambassador testifies Trump pushed for her ouster In Syria, making America ashamed again — and weaker MORE.
The McLaughlins wrote up a 2011 campaign plan for Trump, who ultimately passed on a presidential run.
Trump called them up again ahead of 2016, and John McLaughlin ended up serving as a pollster on the official campaign, while Jim McLaughlin did polling for a pro-Trump outside group.
There have been some rocky moments in between.
John McLaughlin was the pollster for former House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorEmbattled Juul seeks allies in Washington GOP faces tough battle to become 'party of health care' 737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington MORE’s (R-Va.) reelection campaign in 2014.
Two weeks before Election Day, he conducted a poll that found Cantor with a 34-point lead over former Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), the insurgent challenger who pulled off a historic upset, defeating Cantor by 11 points.
The Hill interviewed a half-dozen GOP operatives who were either on Cantor’s staff or at the National Republican Congressional Committee at the time, and none blamed McLaughlin for the polling miss or the loss.
GOP operatives pointed to a host of other errors the campaign made, such as raising Brat’s profile by running attack ads against him.
They said House primaries are notoriously difficult to poll and that the Cantor race broke late on national attention it received from conservative activists, such as the now-Fox News host Laura IngrahamLaura Anne IngrahamWho is Kurt Volker and why is he important? Putin says he doesn't share 'excitement' about Greta Thunberg's UN speech Giuliani: State Department official should 'step forward,' 'I wasn't operating on my own' MORE.
There was roiling anger on the left at Cantor as the face of the Obama resistance in the House, and a post-election poll McLaughlin conducted found that some Democrats voted for Brat in the open primary.
The contest changed how many pollsters approach House primary races, and it was the first real sign of the anti-establishment energy rippling through the Republican Party that would one day lead to Trump.
“This was not his fault, and I’ve always respected and valued his work,” said Doug Heye, who was Cantor’s communications director in 2014. “Primaries move quickly and House primaries especially are tough. Polls are only snapshots in time, and this one was a couple of weeks before the election. I don’t have a bad thing to say about him.”
The McLaughlin brothers also survived a Trump campaign pollster purge earlier this year.
The campaign cut ties with three well-regarded pollsters after a survey Fabrizio conducted found Trump trailing former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFederal prosecutors investigating Giuliani: report Trump lashes out at 2020 Dems, impeachment inquiry In marathon testimony, Dems see an ambassador scorned, while GOP defends Trump MORE in pivotal battleground states, such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The poll leaked to the media and the pollsters were fired. Those close to the situation doubt that any of the pollsters were responsible for the leaked data, which had been circulating at the White House.
Some critics said the firings were evidence that Trump would rather ignore bad news than confront it, with some characterizing the remaining pollsters as “yes men” who would fudge numbers to appease the president or only bring him good news.
But several former White House officials disputed this, saying Trump appreciates those who challenge him with problem spots so he can address them.
“[John McLaughlin] hands over the numbers, analysis and cross-tabs, no hocus pocus or smoke and mirrors,” said Bill Dal Col, a GOP operative and Forbes’s presidential campaign manager. “He’s absolutely straight up. He lays it on the table and tells you what the data means and lets you make the decision based on it.”
The McLaughlin brothers have impressed Trump insiders with their connections outside of Washington, as well.
Jim McLaughlin is a player in Alabama, where he’s been the pollster for many of the state’s most powerful Republicans, including Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyContractors fight for pay from last shutdown — and the next one Trump signs stopgap measure, funding government through November On The Money: Trump signs stopgap spending bill | Shutdown fight delayed to November | Deutsche Bank reveals it has two individual tax returns tied to House subpoena | House Dems demand documents on Ukraine aid MORE and former Gov. Bob Riley.
And in his book Team of Vipers, former White House official Cliff Sims recounted how Trump signaled an early desire to politicize NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, believing it would fly in middle America.
The McLaughlin brothers supplemented Trump’s instinct with polling showing that kneeling during the national anthem is deeply unpopular in many parts of the country.
“[Trump] intuitively knew before just about anyone that immigration, trade and these more cultural issues were bubbling just below the surface,” Sims told The Hill. “Similarly, the McLaughlins – through polling data, focus groups and decades of experience – have their finger on the pulse of the conservative movement in a way that very few pollsters ever will. That, combined with their longtime friendship with – and loyalty to – the president have made them some of his most trusted confidants.”