While Vote Smart turns the tables and polls politicians about where they stand on the issues through the Political Courage Test, whereas most polling targets potential voters. Political polling is one of our best tools for gauging American citizens' top concerns, which candidates they prefer, and potential voter behavior in upcoming elections.But how did polling come to be such a prominent piece of data for political campaigns?
Modern polls came to be with the invention of the Gallup Method, designed by George Gallup whose poll correctly predicted the outcome of a 1932 election in Iowa. The method relies on randomly sampling a statistically representative group of individuals – at the time, a newly accurate way to gather insights into public sentiment. However, polling a truly representative population can be challenging due to disparities in access to telephones or the internet as well as historical willingness of some groups to feel comfortable participating in polling. To counteract these forces, polls are typically “weighted” which means different factors like race or gender are considered, or weighted, differently in the final analysis as demonstrated in the image below from GeoPoll. Each polling organization weights differently, has different sample sizes, and varies in methodology which makes for differing poll results, even when asking the same questions.
The manner in which people are polled and the information is delivered has evolved over time.. There are two main types of political polls: those that ask people how they feel about an issue, known as “opinion polls” and those that ask how an individual might vote, known as “prediction polls.” In the early 2000s these kinds of polls used to be taken almost exclusively over the phone, but by 2012, internet polls became much more popular. Similarly, poll findings used to be primarily shared through large news outlets, but with social media and increased internet presence, the polling organizations are able to make these results easily accessible to the public. This free and open access to polls is critical to the success of our democracy – without them, powerful individuals could easily control the narrative around what voters care about and who they want in leadership. Polls, especially opinion polls, give the American people a voice and can influence elected officials to govern accordingly.
Polls are vital to ensuring responsive government, but that does not mean it is always accurate, particularly for prediction polls. Following the 2016 Presidential election, outrage followed due to the polls inaccurately favoring Hillary Clinton. In fact, many pollsters said Clinton had a 70% up to a 99% chance of winning the election. However, in the image below, data from FiveThirtyEight shows that if polls were off by just 3 points, the popular vote would be a much tighter race and even shows a Clinton loss. The general consensus of what went wrong in these polls is a miscalculation in how much support Donald Trump had.
Particularly among rural voters who were underrepresented and underestimated in turnout. These missteps in 2016, caused similar problems recurred in 2020 where many sources had Joe Biden winning by a much larger margin than what actually happened. The mistakes are mostly due to undercounting of Republican voters in polls and the challenge of predicting voter turnout. Despite these missteps affecting public trust in polls, they still offer insights into public preferences and can even accurately predict the popular vote, even if they miss the election winner. Polls often provide information about who the general public prefers, and perhaps even accurately predict the popular vote, even when it misses the mark on the election winner. Furthermore, polling is still often accurate, especially when there is more transparency regarding the methodology, funding, and partisan bias of the organization conducting the poll.
Looking at political polls with a critical eye is important and helps ensure you are getting the most accurate picture on an issue or candidate. With the constant news updates and internet connection, it can be easy to get caught up in the “horse race” of polls. Polls can give an indication of what the average person might think or feel, but deciding your views for yourself and taking your views to the polls is the best way to impact political outcomes. Vote Smart is here to help you navigate the constant news updates that are in our political sphere today. Vote Smart provides information through their cutting edge research and resources to provide free, factual, unbiased information on candidates and elected officials to provide voters a resource to feel confident in their decision for their representatives. That is why it is of the utmost importance that people have access to reliable, non-partisan information, like Vote Smart provides, in order to determine how they might answer a poll for themselves.
CalTech Staff. n.d. “How Do Political Polls Work | Science of Polling.” Caltech Science Exchange. Accessed August 9, 2023. https://scienceexchange.caltech.edu/topics/voting-elections/political-polls-science.
Elliott, Roxana. 2020. “Weighting Survey Data: Methods and Advantages.” GeoPoll. https://www.geopoll.com/blog/weighting-survey-data-raking-cell-weighting/.
Keeter, Scott, Nick Hatley, Arnold Lau, and Courtney Kennedy. 2021. “What 2020's Election Poll Errors Tell Us About the Accuracy of Issue Polling.” Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/methods/2021/03/02/what-2020s-election-poll-errors-tell-us-about-the-accuracy-of-issue-polling/.
Kennedy, Courtney. “How Public Polling Has Changed in the 21st Century.” Pew Research Center Methods, April 19, 2023. https://www.pewresearch.org/methods/2023/04/19/how-public-polling-has-changed-in-the-21st-century/.
Kennedy, Courtney. 2020. “Key things to know about election polling in the United States.” Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2020/08/05/key-things-to-know-about-election-polling-in-the-united-states/.
Mercer, Andrew, Claudia Deane, and Kyley McGeeney. 2016. “Why 2016 election polls missed their mark.” Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2016/11/09/why-2016-election-polls-missed-their-mark/.
Morris, Elliott. n.d. “Lesson Plan: History of Political Polling in the United States.” In C-SPAN Classroom. National Cable Satellite Corporation.
Rhodes, Campbell. 2022. “A brief history of opinion polls · Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.” Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. https://www.moadoph.gov.au/blog/a-brief-history-of-opinion-polls/#.
Silver, Nate. 2016. “Final Election Update: There's A Wide Range Of Outcomes, And Most Of Them Come Up Clinton.” FiveThirtyEight. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/final-election-update-theres-a-wide-range-of-outcomes-and-most-of-them-come-up-clinton/.