U.S Elections: What Are Opinion Polls?

Oct 19, 2020 By Heather Sevrens, Guest Writer
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[Editor's Note: We bring back this timeless election article from the past]

If you turn on the television between now and the November 2020 Presidential election, chances are high you'll be bombarded by bits of information trying to sway your vote one way or the other.

In the middle of all this noise, reporters and political correspondents throw up hundreds of numbers trying to prove their point.

If you're an undecided voter trying to figure out who is telling the truth and who could be bending the facts, it might be tempting to make your decision based on these numbers. After all, aren't all numbers facts?

Numbers Can Be Misleading

It turns out, numbers can be unreliable if you don't know what you're looking at.

Some numbers, like estimates from the Congressional Budget Office or ballot counts after elections, are highly reliable. These numbers are compiled and reported by groups that have no party allegiances and are held accountable by outside sources.

However, other numbers like political polls can be filled with errors and bias. And yet, news agencies continue to use them alongside their coverage of the election.

History Of Polling

To answer the latter question, we need to go back to 1824 when Andrew Jackson was running against John Quincy Adams for President. The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian published the first straw poll, showing that Jackson was ahead by 335 votes to Adams' 169.

Much like Al Gore in 2000, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but did not get enough electoral votes to become president in 1824. Jackson beat John Quincy Adams by more than 77,000 votes, but since neither candidate received enough electoral votes to clinch the election, the outcome was decided in the House of Representatives. Adams won, and Jackson would not occupy the White House for another 4 years.

Straw polls are informal surveys asking the public how they feel about an issue or a candidate. Unfortunately, straw polls are not very reliable as they do not utilize any sort of scientific rigor.

A good example of straw polling gone wrong is the 1936 opinion poll conducted by The Literary Digest. The magazine sent out millions of postcards asking Americans who they were going to vote for in the 1936 election. They received back 2.4 million cards from their readers and predicted Republican candidate Alf Landon would win the election.

However, President Franklin D. Roosevelt won by a landslide, calling into question the magazine's credibility and forcing them to go out of business. 

In Part 2 next week, we will look at what went wrong with the 1936 straw poll and the rise of more scientific polling methods.

Courtesy eHow, Wikipedia


Aahn's picture
Aahn February 12, 2021 - 7:49am
I like this news article 😸
eliasr's picture
eliasr November 6, 2020 - 9:08am
Thommy's picture
Thommy October 19, 2020 - 1:26pm
go Trump and I miss Barak Obama
ccroft's picture
ccroft January 9, 2017 - 2:47pm

I do not think the straw polling is a good way to vote.

ericl's picture
ericl November 14, 2016 - 9:37am


samsoniab's picture
samsoniab November 7, 2016 - 8:07am


Cupcakelace's picture
Cupcakelace October 9, 2016 - 11:31pm

I like this article. It is very interesting. I find this interesting because it shows examples of past elections and also shows points of why straw polls aren't the very best way to elect candidates.

i like the system where the people that count the votes are not allowed to choose. I think it's fair. But my question is how are they not supposed to choose a side if it's all over the news.

Aditya08's picture
Aditya08 October 1, 2016 - 1:20pm

Anybody but Trump. Then, let's go Hillary!

cadenceneel's picture
cadenceneel November 23, 2020 - 9:06am
Jos150's picture
Jos150 September 23, 2016 - 7:56am

I think that this election is definetly not mature between Hilary And Trump. But, my opinion is that Hilary Clinton wins the election because she seems to be playing much more fair and nicer the D. Trump and his familly. 

Anyway i really liked this article because it tells you multiple things about the past and what to trust and not to trust. This will help me a lot when I grow up but, not just to do big votes even small ones that are not very important but this will really help.

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GowstoneGaming October 6, 2016 - 5:09am


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GowstoneGaming September 20, 2016 - 1:16am


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wsmecums September 22, 2016 - 10:48am


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wsmecums September 19, 2016 - 10:04am


samsoniab's picture
samsoniab November 7, 2016 - 9:31am