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What is a Worm Poll?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A worm poll is a poll which is conducted to generate realtime data about audience responses to an event, typically a political debate. The data is used to generate a graph of viewer approval, which can look sort of like a worm inching along, rising and falling in response to the debate or speech. While worm polls do not always provide accurate pictures of public response to speeches, they can be used to create a basic yardstick of viewer response, which can be extremely useful for politicians who think quickly on their feet.

The data used in a worm poll is generated by handsets held by viewers of a debate which may be live or televised. As they watch the debate, viewers can indicate their approval or disapproval of what is being said; with large numbers of viewers to create a big sample, the data can be quite interesting. In some instances, the viewers may be broken up by political leaning, gender, or other criteria, to learn about how specific groups respond to political topics.

Often, worm poll data is displayed on television as debates are broadcast, and this can be interesting for home viewers. It is possible to observe radical rises and falls in opinion as particular topics or even words come up. Adaptable politicians take note of the continuous survey data from the worm poll to adjust their stance or approach to the debate, in the hopes of keeping their numbers off.

Because the data in a worm poll can fluctuate so radically, a worm poll isn't always the best way to judge responses to a speech or debate. For example, people's opinions of the politicians may change after reflection, or after reading commentary on the debate, and sometimes the overall perception of a politician's performance can be contradict the results obtained over the course of the worm poll.

Analysis of worm polls is only one part of a political campaign, but these polls can be powerful tools. By learning about the gut reactions of audiences to particular styles of speechmaking and topics, political advisors can make suggestions for future events, identifying points where a candidate is perceived as weak so that the team can work more explicitly on these areas.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon338802 — On Jun 17, 2013

I was wondering if anyone knew of an online application where you could get a controllable worm poll on a screen. We are "grilling" my boss.

By David09 — On Jan 16, 2012

@Charred - Understand that a worm poll reflects the audience’s leanings as much as it does the politicians’ skills. Depending on your political leanings, certain phrases will resonate with you more than others.

Politicians understand this and use this information not only to know how to adapt their speech, but to get a barometer on how their “base” is thinking versus how the so called moderates are thinking.

It’s really a useful tool in a lot of ways, in my opinion.

By Charred — On Jan 16, 2012

@nony - It may be cynical, but all politicians do that, regardless of their political leanings. Americans like to feel good about themselves and their country, for the most part, and politicians know that they have to tap these shared core values to win over voters.

The most damaging part of the worm poll however seems to be when a politician is caught in a gaffe or a faux pas of some sort.

That generates a lot of strong, negative reaction across the board. We expect that our politicians will remain composed at all times, and know how to finesse the issues.

By nony — On Jan 15, 2012

I watch a lot of political television news and commentary. The worm poll election debate graphs have become a fixture. It’s quite informative to see how the public is reacting to certain “keywords” used by politicians.

I’ve noticed that certain pollsters use the worm poll as well with some of their focus groups, and in their commentary they deliver a blow by blow analysis of how the politicians did, and where numbers ticked up or down.

We have become accustomed to hearing that certain words or phrases have been tested and “focus grouped,” meaning that they generate positive responses in the audience.

As a result politicians try to employ them more. Frankly, I think that this reveals a cynical view of the electorate, the idea that we can be bought essentially by using the right catch phrases and buzz words. That’s the state of affairs in electoral politics however.

By gravois — On Jan 15, 2012

I really wonder how useful worm polls actually are. It seems like forcing people to react so immediately and emotionally produces a lot data that doesn't count for much. And how do you know that when a given candidate was talking about a given issue a respondent wasn't suffering from indigestion or annoyed at their squirming kid? Maybe they didn't like the moment more than they didn't like the issue.

By truman12 — On Jan 14, 2012

@anon185085 - So are you saying that when an audience is both looking at a worm poll and also participating in a separate worm poll? Or is this when the audience can see the results of the same worm poll they are participating in? Either way it's a really interesting issue and I'm glad you brought it up.

In a way it's kind of like a public opinion feedback loop. Inputs and outputs come from the same place and so they inevitably become muddled. I tend to think that a lot of polling is biased, flawed and ultimately unuseful. If you listen to the talking head pundits for just a day or two you will hear dozens of seemingly contradictory studies making all kinds of claims about the way people think and act. But the simple fact is that people are unpredictable and no outcome is certain.

By anon185085 — On Jun 10, 2011

Another thing that should be noted about worm polls is that they can affect the audience's views. This was shown in an experiment conducted by researchers from the University of London.

Worth keeping in mind if you're watching a debate with the worm! --Stew

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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