Lesson Plan: How to Interpret Political Polls

How Polling Works

CBS Elections and Surveys Director Anthony Salvanto discussed how polling and surveys work and addressed some of the skepticism of the process. He talked about the some of the techniques that pollsters use and the challenges that they face in getting representative samples and data.


This lesson has students learn about the basics of polling including concepts like margin of error, representative samples and the different methodologies used by pollsters. Students will view video clips of pollsters and political analysts and develop strategies for interpreting political polling data. The lesson concludes by having students apply these strategies to current examples of political polls.


  • WARM-UP:

    Begin class by answering the following questions to gauge existing knowledge and perceptions about political polling.

    • In your own words, write a definition of a political poll.

    • How do you think political polling works?

    Discuss the answers to the warm-up questions and address any misconceptions.

    Introduce the concept of polling by having the students view the following video clip and answer the questions below.

    VIDEO CLIP 1: How Polling Works (3:19)

    • What is the purpose of polling? How is this different than predictions?

    • Describe the process in which pollsters measure public opinion.

    • What tools do pollsters use to collect data?

    After reviewing students' answers from the introductory video clip, have the students develop a guide to help them better evaluate and understand polls. The guide should include tips, strategies and questions students can use when they analyze polling data.

    To help them create this guide, students will view the following video clips of pollsters and analysts. Students can either use the notetaking chart linked below or answer the guiding questions associated with each video.

    HANDOUT: Political Polling Notetaking Chart (Google Doc)

  • VIDEO CLIP 2: How to Evaluate Polls (1:38)

    • Why is the source of a poll important to understand?

    • Why might candidates only promote certain polling results?

    • What suggestions does Mr. Wasserman give when evaluating polls?
  • VIDEO CLIP 3: What Makes a Good Poll (1:21)

    • What is meant by a representative sample of the country?

    • What strategies do pollsters use to ensure a representative sample?
  • VIDEO CLIP 4: Margin of Error (1:56)

    • What is a margin of error?

    • In close election polls, why is it important to know the margin of error?
  • VIDEO CLIP 5: Polling Questions and Samples (1:57)

    • What methods do pollsters use to reach potential voters for their samples? What are advantages and disadvantages for each of these methods?

    • Why is the size of a sample important for accurate polls?

    • According to Mr. Hart, how is sampling like a blood test?
  • VIDEO CLIP 6: Timing and Political Polling (1:27)

    • What are disadvantages of polling for a short time period?

    • What are disadvantages of polling for a long time period?

    • How can specific events impact polling?

    • What does Ms. Soltis Anderson suggest for the appropriate amount of time for polling?
  • VIDEO CLIP 7: Types of Polls and Demographics (2:41)

    • How do pollsters target specific demographic groups when performing polls?

    • What are advantages of polling registered voters and likely voters instead of all adults?

    • What is meant by a "likely voter?"
  • VIDEO CLIP 8: Bias and Developing Polling Questions (1:13)

    • How can the language and word choice lead to bias in a survey?

    • Why is it important for interviewers to be unbiased?

    Using the guide they created, students will choose a recent poll found on the Real Clear Politics Polling website. For their chosen poll, they will provide the following information:

    • A summary of the findings of the poll.

    • Based on what they learned about polling, what factors might have influenced these findings?

    • What would be an appropriate assumption that could be made based on this polling data?

    • What would be an inappropriate assumption that you could be made based on this polling data?

    As a summary, have the students present their poll's findings and assumptions. Address any questions and misconceptions that students might have during their discussions.


    2016 Presidential Election Polling Analysis- Read the Atlantic article entitled What Went Wrong With the 2016 Polls. Using what you learned from the videos, provide an explanation of what went wrong when it came to polling.

    Create Your Own Poll- Choose a topic that you are interested in. Develop a poll that includes several multiple-choice type questions that gauge people's interest on that topic. Using this poll, perform your poll and gather data. After performing your poll, do the following:

    • Summarize your findings

    • Explain what, if any, assumptions you can make from this data

    • Evaluate your poll using the criteria you developed from the video clips

    • Does the media place too much emphasis on polling before the election? Explain your answer.

    • How has changes in technology presented challenges for pollsters?

    • How can polling results possibly impact voter behavior?

Additional Resources


  • Aggregate
  • Bias
  • Candidate
  • Data Point
  • Demographics
  • Favorability
  • George Gallup
  • Likely Voter
  • Margin Of Error
  • Methodology
  • Microcosm
  • Polling
  • Public Opinion
  • Random Sampling
  • Registered Voter
  • Representative Sample
  • Robocall
  • Sample Size
  • Subjective Judgement
  • Survey
  • Tonality
  • Word Choice


Campaigns & Elections


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