Check your References — Public Opinion Polls

As part of Election 101, we are posting exclusive content from The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History on subjects related to Election 2012.

In this article Sarah E. Igo reveals the origins of the “straw poll” and other fascinating tidbits from the long history of trying to predict the winners in American politics. Here’s a short excerpt:

Starting in the nineteenth century, rudimentary political surveys, whether for entertainment or electoral gain, were undertaken by reporters, party loyalists, and ordinary citizens. In the 1820s, partisan newspapers began conducting straw polls as a means of both calculating and swaying political contests. “Straws,” named for the way a straw held up in the wind could determine which way it was blowing, were haphazard instruments for gauging opinion, with passengers on a train or people encountered during a phase of a political campaign polled as the entire sample. Regardless, these quantitative surveys were popular news features into the twentieth century, encouraging a “horse race” approach to reporting elections that continues to the present.

The current American political process is nearly unimaginable without public opinion polls. These surveys measure not only the relative standing of candidates for office but also citizens’ views on myriad social and political issues. Attempts to record political opinion are as old as the nation. But such polls, at least in their contemporary guise, date only from the mid- 1930s, when George Gallup, Elmo Roper, and Archibald Crossley championed the ability of scientific sampling methods to reveal the “pulse of democracy.” The modern public opinion poll— along with its ramifications for U.S. politics and civic life— was born of their success.


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The preceding is an excerpt from The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History, edited by Michael Kazin, Rebecca Edwards, and Adam Rothman. To learn more about this book, please visit Copyright © 2011 by Princeton University Press. No part of this text may be distributed, posted, or reproduced in any form by digital or mechanical means without prior written permission of the publisher.