What is a Pollster?

Matt Brady

A pollster is an individual or organization who conducts polls for the purpose of collecting data about demographic groups and voting blocs. He or she uses data to assess trends that have the potential to impact political campaigns and election cycles. Some pollsters their research as a public service to help voters stay informed. Others offer private services, collecting poll information to help campaigns form an election strategy. Still others gather voter information to try to predict an election’s outcome. A pollster may also be used by businesses to analyze market trends.

Pollsters are employed by organizations to gather pre and post election opinions.
Pollsters are employed by organizations to gather pre and post election opinions.

Many pollsters publish their findings for use as a public resource. They are a useful tool for anyone who, for example, may have an interest in a president’s public approval rating; it also can show how much public support may be behind a particular legislative act.

Pollsters gather information for specific political campaigns.
Pollsters gather information for specific political campaigns.

To the public, people in this position may simply be regarded as one informative resource out of many, but for political candidates they’re a necessary part of constructing a winning campaign. A pollster who works privately for a campaign compiles specialized research in an attempt to learn as much as possible about voter demographics. By finding out voter preference and demographic trends, he or she may help a candidate and campaign staff put together the most effective election strategy.

Pollsters ask questions and collect data to analyze and project voter trends.
Pollsters ask questions and collect data to analyze and project voter trends.

Although many pollsters focus heavily on gathering pre-election opinion research, the polling doesn’t generally stop when voting starts. During voting, pollsters ask individuals who just cast their vote to reveal for whom they voted. This is called exit polling. Exit poll research is used as an indicator of what an ongoing election's outcome may be. News organizations, web sites and bloggers all use exit poll research.

Like any other poll, exit polls can be misleading; this occurs most often when polled voters aren't an accurate representation of the majority of votes cast. When Harry S. Truman defeated Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 US presidential election, for example, it came as a shock to many of the media and public who had assumed, largely from errant exit polls, that Dewey was the winner. The Chicago Tribune was so duped that it infamously ran a headline proclaiming "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Many polling places in the US now use electronic voting machines.
Many polling places in the US now use electronic voting machines.

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Discussion Comments


While public opinion polls are widely used and are apparently effective, I think that they must be designed to be simple and short. Otherwise, people are inclined not to respond to them.

And if the questions are well-worded, a lot of information can be gained and many more people will respond.

When companies use polls or surveys for marketing purposes, they will get a lot more people to fill out the information if they offer a little reward!


@Tolleranza - I agree with you that polls are a good opportunity for citizens to give information about their preferences for political candidates, as well as information about what they would like politicians to accomplish.

Polls don't usually tell a big part of the story, since such a small percentage are interviewed, but it gives candidates some ideas about the feelings of the people.

There are probably better ways to get political information that hopefully would help Americans, but they would probably cost a lot of money.


@azuza - I agree about it being your own personal business about who you voted for; however, I would tell a pollster who I was going to vote for.

I would tell a pollster even more regarding my views. I feel that the more the politicians know about what most Americans are thinking we can get into some real politics; where the topics are set by what we want and not what is hyped in the media or other outlets.

Now what I see as the downside is that politicians may just talk about our topics during the election and then get back to their agenda (or their campaign financial supporters agendas) once they are in office. But at least the conversation has begun!


All of the information that is gathered from the various political polls must be worth quite a bit because you see more of them all the time.

There must be a lot of valuable information that is gathered to give one opponent higher poll numbers than another. The information must be accurate enough since they continue to spend a lot of money on this kind of activity.

Even on election day when they are reporting all the numbers that are coming in, you still hear a lot of poll numbers being given and wonder which ones you can really trust or not.


I always kind of dread the year leading up to a new presidential election. Between the number of ad campaigns, mail and telephone calls, it can drive you crazy.

I know that all the different campaigns try to get a good feel of what the public opinion is by conducting polls and surveys, but sometimes it is way too much information to absorb.

I always wonder how accurate all the poll information really is. It seems like there is a lot of time and expense that is put in to these polls, and I wonder if there is better use of funds than this.


@Azuza and JaneAir - A more recent example would be the 2000 election. On the basis of exit polling that was incomplete (the panhandle is in a different time zone and they were still voting), political news networks called the state of Florida for George W. Bush. That was a key factor in VP Al Gore calling and conceding the election.

Then, as more results came in from FL, it became clear that the state had been "called" precipitously. VP Gore retracted his concession, and then began the whole business with the hanging chads.

Since then, I think that news outlets have been a little more cautious in how they use exit polls and when they announce a projected winner for a state. I assume that they also use what limited actual returns are available - does anyone know about that?


@Azuza - Polling must be helpful at least sometimes, because like the article said, people continue to base their campaign strategies on it.

I'm interested in the business applications of polling. It definitely makes sense to me that polling could be used for market research. I think people are actually more likely to tell the truth about their buying habits than their voting habits. I know I wouldn't share my vote with pollsters either! But I probably would fill out a survey about my buying habits.


I think it's kind of funny we still use polling in political campaigns. The Truman-Dewey episode discussed in the article proves how inaccurate it can be!

I mean, you can't ask everyone in the country what they think or who they voted for. Also, there's always a chance that people won't tell the pollsters the truth! I know I feel like it's my own personal business who I voted for. I don't think I would reveal my vote to a pollster!

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