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December 10, 2015

What do early election polls tell us?


History has shown that early opinion poll numbers often do not predict the candidates that will ultimately win their party’s nomination going into a presidential election.

While a great deal depends on the quality and reliability of those polls to begin with, the fact remains that predicting an outcome so far in advance is nearly impossible.

“There’s no question it’s harder and much more difficult to collect an accurate opinion, a sample of opinion of Americans,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who partners with Democratic pollster Peter Hart to conduct the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

Although pollsters strive for accuracy, technological changes present a challenge for gathering accurate data. For example, 45 percent of Americans today have a cell phone but no landline, according to McInturff. Since pollsters are not allowed to auto-dial cell phones as they do with landlines, it becomes much more expensive and time consuming to manually locate and dial each individual number to conduct a poll.

To save time and money, some polling companies continue to only call landlines, even though numbers reveal that the people answering those phones are disproportionately over the age of 50, according to McInturff. That means large sections of the population who tend to rely on cell phones, including younger people, Latinos and poorer populations, are not included in the final poll results.

“Unfortunately, we also have seen a proliferation of lower-quality polls that also get picked up in the media,” said Lee Miringoff, who directs the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. “So, for the public as a whole, it gets a little confused trying to sort out all the numbers.”


poll – a sampling of opinions taken from a selected or random group of people that may be used for analysis, including a presidential election

pollster – a person who conducts a poll or compiles data obtained by a poll

Iowa caucuses – an electoral event in Iowa where voters meet to discuss the presidential candidates and choose who should get the primary nomination for each party, different from a “primary” held in most states in which voters use the ballot box to decide their nominee

electorate – a body of people who have the right to vote

Warm up questions
  1. What is a political poll?
  2. Do you think polls are accurate? Why or why not?
  3. What is the typical reaction of you or a family member when a pollster calls your family’s home?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Why are polls early on in a presidential race not always a reliable indicator of who will win?
  2. Why do you think there is a difference between polls taken from cellphone users versus landline users?
  3. How can you tell if a poll is from a high-quality, non-biased source?
  4. If you were the head of a polling company, how would you adapt to people’s changing phone and technology habits?
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