Everyday Math

Numbers and Math in Everyday Life

How is political polling done?

Although polls seem to be magical, they are merely a matter of taking information and applying some simple statistics. Polling is a technique that uncovers the attitudes or opinions of a segment of the population, and is based on certain questions about politics, the economy, and even social conditions.

Polling as it is conducted today started in 1936, when George Gallup used statistical modeling to take the first political poll: the presidential election of Franklin D. Roosevelt over Alf Landon. FDR was successful, as we all know, and it was “predicted” by Gallup based on his model. After the further successes of his polling methods, he was quoted as saying that sampling public opinion was like sampling soup: “one spoonful can reflect the taste of the whole pot, if the pot is well stirred.”

His words continue to be followed today in justifying political polling: sampling a small number of people to reflect a larger population. The sample population can be chosen randomly, stratified, or by other methods; people can be polled via a telephone interview, questionnaire in the mail, or personal interview, such as an exit poll during an election (polled as a person leaves a voting place). Statistics such as averaging and resulting percents are then used, mainly by the media, to determine the overall “pulse” of the public. Many commercial poll takers not only claim their results help in market research and advertising, but also get the peoples’ concerns out in the open.


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