What is Political Polling?

While hear a lot about political polling, most of us don’t put too much thought into it. We assume it’s exactly what it sounds like: a survey about politics. While that is true, the ins and outs of political polling can be a lot more complicated than that.

While hear a lot about political polling, most of us don’t put too much thought into it. We assume it’s exactly what it sounds like: a survey about politics. While that is true, the ins and outs of political polling can be a lot more complicated than that. 

Every time an election comes around, we always hear from political polling organizations. Various sources will report potential election outcomes based on polls they or another organization conducted, though these polls are often inaccurate.

What is Political Polling?

A wide range of groups across the nation use political polling to predict election results and gauge voters’ opinions on issues. While the results are often talked up as indicators of how an election will go, polls are generally more helpful in showing what issues are important to voters and how they feel about candidates.

Political groups and organizations can significantly benefit from polls. You can figure out how voters feel about a candidate or issue and use that information to your advantage. Suppose you are working with a local politician running for city council, and, after polling, you discover that many citizens are worried about the city’s infrastructure. In that case, you can have your candidate address that issue directly to assuage voters and influence them to their side. 

The Issues with Political Polling

However, there are things to watch out for when conducting polls. You have to know how easy it is to affect a poll’s results if you hope to gain an accurate understanding of voters’ opinions. 


Pew Research Center reports that asking voters the same question in different ways can affect their response. The placement or wording of the question could impact your results if you aren’t careful.

For example, when conducting election polls, undecided voters could be swayed by various features of the question. While decided voters tend to stick with their response, undecided voters might choose randomly or pick a candidate in the spur of the moment. 

Primaries vs. General Elections

Additionally, polling for primary elections can be very different than polling for general elections. In primaries, you could have a long list of candidates whose stances go beyond overall party affiliation. That makes it much harder to list a voter’s choices and obtain a clear response about who they will vote for.


Race may also have an impact on polls. Black political activists have dubbed this the Bradley effect after the 1982 California gubernatorial election. Tom Bradley, a black Democrat, lost to George Deukmejian, a white Republican, even though Bradley was forecasted to win.

Some believe that the Bradley effect stems from white voters’ hesitance to say that they are voting against a black candidate. Because polls are typically conducted over the phone, some white voters may feel uncomfortable directly voicing their opposition to a black candidate to a poller.

However, the Pew Research Center has reported that, while the Bradley effect was common in the 1980s and 1990s, it is no longer a significant phenomenon. Their analysis of the 2008 election did not find any systemic errors in polling results due to the Bradley effect.

Phone Calls

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of political polling is how it is usually conducted. Most organizations try to gather responses by calling voters directly. 

However, since the invention of caller ID, most people are unwilling to pick up the phone for unknown numbers, especially around election times. There is no accurate method to adjust results for voters who don’t answer their phones, so pollers are just left with no response.

Many organizations still trust the accuracy of phone polls. However, if the number of people willing to answer polling calls increases over the next few years, organizations may need to find new polling methods. 

Finding New Ways to Poll

While political polling is a helpful tool for gauging voters’ opinions, pollers face many challenges gathering accurate information. However, many organizations still trust the accuracy of phone polls, though this could change soon. Because phone polls have lower and lower response rates each year, organizations may need to find new ways to poll very soon.

Some organizations have already turned to online polls, though this still presents issues. According to the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of American adults used the internet. The other ten percent accounts for more than 32 million Americans. 

Additionally, the people that respond to online polls can skew results, as online polls require respondents to opt-in. Researches have found that unemployed men are most likely to participate in online polls.

Final Thoughts

Political polling is a good way to understand how voters feel about specific issues or candidates, though it has its limitations and challenges. Going forward, organizations will likely continue to use phone polls as the primary method of polling. However, they may need to find new, more effective procedures in the near future. 


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