How Do Political Polls Work?

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With the 2016 presidential election edging closer, many Americans are bracing themselves for an onslaught of political campaigns, debates, and nitpicking commercials where opponents bash each other.

Political polls are one of the more interesting—and often misunderstood—parts of the process. They are where you learn how the American public feels about issues such as taxes. But how do you know if the reported results of a poll are accurate and not just politically motivated?

The Role of Polls in Politics

In an election such as the upcoming presidential one, political polls give candidates, the public, and the media quick snapshots of how the overall American public perceives a specific subject. It’s extremely valuable information to candidates looking to cater their messages during a campaign as well as to media professionals who want to provide up-to-date reports on issues without having to wait for actual results.

Interested parties can tailor their messages and actions to the needs and wants of the American population by coming up with questions that will address their issues, choosing a polling method (phone, Internet, paper, etc.), and sampling a representative proportion of the population.

However, political polls are also used to further personal and party political agendas.

Sniffing Out Potential Biases

Polls cost money to conduct; someone, or some organization, must foot the bill. Biases are therefore built into the poll-collecting business itself. Everyone wants to please their boss and therefore make more money, right?

Biases can be introduced into the data in a variety of ways, purposefully or otherwise. Here are a few of the big ones to watch for:

  • Sample used: Was this poll conducted among registered voters or likely voters? Is the sample random, or does it represent a group of affiliated people (e.g., teacher unions)?
  • Polling method: If a poll is conducted only through the Internet, it might indicate bias toward a younger, more affluent demographic by excluding members of the population who are not always connected online.
  • Poll conductors’ political agendas: The companies that conduct polls for candidates, organizations, and the media have political agendas, too—they are made up of people, after all. This could create bias depending on how questions are asked (e.g., whether they introduce a candidate’s name at the beginning or end of questioning), the choice of sample, and in other decisions.

Understanding the Accuracy of a Political Poll

Potential biases aside, something else that could mess with the data may sound familiar if you’ve taken a statistics class: the sampling error or margin of error. Because not every citizen can possibly take every poll—this would reduce convenience and cost effectiveness—the results cannot be 100 percent accurate. The margin of error therefore describes the range an answer likely falls between to a varying degree of what’s called a confidence level, based on the sample size.

During the upcoming election and beyond, you can now use this information to gauge for yourself how the American public feels about specific tax issues that affect your paycheck, such as whether the federal government should replace the income tax with a sales tax. By staying informed, you’ll be able to make a smart vote on the issues that matter most to you.