Politics & Society

Politics 101: What Are the Different Types of Polls in America?

Written by MasterClass

May 31, 2019 • 2 min read

If there’s one thing that’s consistent throughout political reporting, it’s polling. When we read about a prominent elected official, the story is typically accompanied by that official’s approval ratings, disapproval ratings, or how they’re projected to fare in a matchup with various rivals. All of that information is gleaned from public polling, but there are many types of polls out in the world.

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What Is Polling?

Polling is the use of survey instruments to elicit and record an individual’s opinions, attitudes, and personal information. Instruments can be designed to capture qualitative data by asking open-ended questions of voters and recording answers in their own words. Quantitative instruments provide fixed options for their respondents’ answers, such as “What is your opinion of the candidate? Choose one: favorable, somewhat favorable, not sure, somewhat unfavorable, unfavorable.”

What Are the Different Types of Polls?

Different types of polls track different types of information. Although all rely on the same overall methodology—asking a random sample of people to share their opinions—polls vary in their sampling techniques, their breadth, and the type of information they seek to acquire. Here are some of the more common polls used in United States politics:

  • Public opinion polls. These polls are exactly what they sound like. They survey the opinions of respondents on any number of topics. They can measure respondents’ approval or disapproval of public figures, whether that’s politicians or celebrities. They can also measure opinions on issues, such as gun control or a carbon tax.
  • Baseline/benchmark polls. These terms are used interchangeably. Such polls are conducted at the beginning of a campaign to establish baselines levels of voters’ perceptions, knowledge, and opinions of a candidate.
  • Brushfire polls. These are conducted to gauge changes in voter sentiment during a race. A common Brushfire Poll seeks to measure a candidate’s popularity by checking “favorable” and “unfavorable” ratings.
  • Tracking polls. Shorter, smaller polls conducted daily among the same universe of voters at key periods in primaries or general elections to track how their perceptions, attitudes, and opinions about a candidate change.
  • Exit polls. Surveys given to voters exiting polling locations on Election Day, to learn how they voted. These polls are only useful in retrospect (to learn from the past). They also help media outlets predict final results before the polls close. This is not to say that exits polls always accurately forecast the actual result.
  • Push polls. Polls where the questioning is worded to lead the respondent toward a certain response, whether positive or negative. Rather than surveying the whole population, push polls seek to influence public thinking.
  • Straw polls. Not a survey of public opinion, but rather an unofficial ad hoc vote. Straw votes do not count toward a final tally, but they provide a portrait of a political race well before Election Day.

How Do Political Campaigns Use Polls?

Accurate polling is one of the most valuable tools available to campaigns. In the U.S., they are embraced by Democrats, Republicans, and third parties alike. Campaigns rely on scientific surveys of likely voters, conducted by professional polling organizations. These professional polls control for sample size, representative samples of the population, and a reasonable margin of error.

Beyond this, most sophisticated political campaigns will include a pollster on their staff. The pollster is responsible for conducting the campaign’s survey research and focus groups, analyzing the results, and interpreting their implications for campaign messaging and strategy. Typically he or she reports to the campaign manager.

Learn more about campaign strategy and messaging in David Axelrod and Karl Rove’s MasterClass.