Election polls help candidates, the public, and the media to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate running for office. There are variety of polls campaigns, publications and universities conduct and their results can vary depending on a number of factors, the most important one being whether a poll was scientific or unscientific.
The difference between scientific and unscientific polling is vast. In a scientific poll, the pollster randomly selects the people to be interviewed while participants in an unscientific poll, otherwise known as open-access polls, opt to participate in a poll and therefore skew the results towards a predetermined outcome. The best way to distinguish between the two is by examining who picked the respondents in a given poll.
There are dozens of organizations and publications that conduct election polling ranging in size and stature from local advocacy groups to national publications and organizations. And while there are no regulations governing how polls must be conducted, that doesn't mean it's difficult to determine the difference between a reliable and unreliable poll.
Important things to consider when reviewing a national poll are: who conducted and paid for the poll, how many people were interviewed, were interviewees selected at random, whether the interviewees are likely or definite voters, what the sampling error was, and perhaps most importantly, what questions were asked and how were they phrased.
While it's tempting to search for polls that reinforce our preconceived biases, the best way to gauge how a candidate is faring both at the state and national level is by sticking with scientific polls that have a strong track record of fairness and impartiality.
Prominent National Polls
| Pollster |
|ABC News/Washington Post|
|CBS News/New York Times|
|Fox News/Beacon Research/Shaw&Co. Research|
|NBC News/Wall Street Journal|
|Pew Research Center|
|Rasmussen Reports/Pulse Opinion Research|
Many of these organizations conduct state specific polls, which gives us a better snapshot of what voters in individual states think of the various candidates. These state specific polls are especially helpful for candidates because it helps them see their strengths and weaknesses in different states and can help guide their campaign strategy as the election season progresses.