For 36 years, from 1979 to 2015, the Ames Iowa Straw Poll was the first critical test for potential Republican candidates to rise to the top of Presidential contenders. Conducted at a fundraising dinner that benefitted the Iowa Republican Party, the Ames Iowa Straw Poll was the first test of a campaign’s viability. But what is a straw poll, how accurate are its results, and how does it differ from other types of polling?

Political Election Polling

Despite many reports to the contrary concerning the 2016 Presidential Election, political polling is a relatively effective measure to determine how well a campaign or issue is performing in the field.

Brief Historical Overview

The first known political poll was a straw poll conducted in 1824 by The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian newspaper between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. The poll showed Jackson leading Adams by 335 votes to 169.  Consequently, since Jackson won the popular vote, straw polls gained momentum.

Straw polls remained centered in cities across the growing United States until 1916 when The Literary Digest conducted a national poll, in part as a marketing effort to raise circulation, and correctly predicted Woodrow Wilson as the future President. As a result of this successful effort, The Literary Digest conducted the same national poll, mailing out millions of postcards in each of the successive Presidential elections through 1936.

Birth Of Scientific Polling

Unfortunately, in 1936, because their readers were more affluent, The Literary Digest’s winning streak suffered a blow. Conversely, George Gallup, conducted a much smaller poll based on a demographically representative sample, predicting Roosevelt’s landslide win. Shortly thereafter, The Literary Digest went out of business, while we still talk about Gallup’s polling to this day.

Modern Political Polling

Since Gallup correctly predicted the winner of the 1936 Presidential Election, scientific polling of representative samples has taken over straw polls to get far more accurate results by polling a sample of people and not a whole group.

How The Straw Poll Works

A political straw poll is an official poll conducted by asking a group of people their opinion about an issue, a campaign, or a candidate. Straw polls can help determine how a large majority of voters feel on any given issue, giving candidates the ability to hone their messaging on that issue or in their campaign.

Straw polls are conducted to determine if there is any movement on an issue within a large group, or if there is enough support to continue to devote time to discuss the issue further.

In Caucuses

Straw polls also help in selecting delegates for political caucuses and passing resolutions.  The media often reports the results of straw polls to influence delegates in caucuses and political conventions later.

Popular Straw Polls

Until recently, the Republican Party conducted two well-known straw polls as a precursor to the primary election in each state for the Presidential Election.

As mentioned earlier, the Ames Straw Poll remained one of the most popular straw polls in the country due to the fact that it took place in Iowa, where the first political caucus of the Presidential Primary Election takes place every four years.

How Polls Affect Elections

Straw poll

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Straw Polls

Straw polls are conducted long before an actual election for a reason: they help a candidate understand how their message is coming across to voters and how viable the campaign appears to the group most likely to support them.

The advantage of straw polls is that they give a candidate the advantage of determining how they will compete head-to-head with the competition.  If a campaign is not gaining traction, and a candidate finishes well behind the rest of the other challengers, then they can drop out of the election with a quick and graceful exit that allows them to save money and keep their political future on track.

Benchmark Polls

Much like straw polls, benchmark polls are conducted by contacting a pool of likely voters to help a candidate determine the viability of a potential run for elected office. Unlike straw polls, a benchmark poll is conducted either just before or just after a candidate’s declaration for running for office.  A benchmark poll shows the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. If conducted before the candidate announces their candidacy, the benchmark poll can determine whether they should even consider running for office at all.

Brushfire Polls

Between benchmark polls and tracking polls, brushfire polls are conducted after a candidate has declared their candidacy. They serve a number of purposes for campaigns. They can help determine in what demographics or regional areas they are not doing well and therefore must invest resources in. Brushfire polls can also test messaging both positive and negative.

Brushfire polls are often used to test negative and attack ads against a candidate’s opponent to determine the potential response to the ads. They are also used in primary campaigns to convince challengers to drop out and back a stronger candidate in the election.

Tracking Polls

The form of polls most people are familiar with are called tracking polls.  There are two different types of tracking polls used in politics: internal and external.

Internal Tracking Polls

Internal tracking polls are used by campaigns to track their progress as a campaign gets closer to election day.  Tracking polls help determine where a campaign will spend money advertising, where campaign events will need to be held to make voters more familiar with a candidate and their views, to determine what messaging is working and what isn’t.  Candidates and their staff use internal tracking polls like regular weekly report cards to determine a campaign’s success.

External Tracking Polls

The polls reported on CNN, FOX News, and MNBC are external polls. These polls are conducted by polling firms like Gallup, YouGov, Zogby, and Quinnipiac University Polling Institute using the scientific method of determining a small sample of likely voters as a representation of the larger voting block as a whole. These are the polls that most people are familiar with and monitor regularly.  As elections heat up polls are released between every day and every few days to judge the movement of a campaign.

The Media, Polls, And Voters

With the prolific reporting of political polls, every minute difference in the polls is reported on and examined, making it impossible to escape reports of how well a candidate is doing or how poorly they’re performing during an election.

While the news media likes a feel-good “underdog” story where a potential candidate comes from behind to win it all, underdog victories are rare. Polling data routinely show that a candidate who is down in the polls usually won’t get a boost from an “underdog” effect. However, the opposite is true. A candidate that is the perceived winner often finds him or herself riding higher due to momentum based on the Bandwagon Effect.

The Bandwagon Effect

There is an unfortunate and ugly reality in our society and that is, we all want to be associated with winners. It’s an understandable natural inclination. However, when nature meets political campaigns and polling, things can take a disastrous turn.  There is a real phenomenon called the Bandwagon Effect where voters who believe one particular voting party will win the election go out and vote for that candidate or voting party.


Just like the Bandwagon Effect plays into the belief that it’s better to vote for one party based on the likelihood of winning, Contagion seeks to move voters to the perceived majority view and use the intention of voters strategically to affect which party wins the election.

Election Silence

​Because of their effect on the general voting population, many countries are seeking to prevent polling data from being released to the public to curb the Bandwagon Effect and Contagion forms of voting.



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While many other countries may consider silencing polling data from being reported during elections, the United States is far less likely to consider making that move due to the press’s first amendment protection.

From the early 1800s straw polls were an integral part of our country’s election process. Polls are still an integral part of an election cycle and for each campaign. Polling data helps a candidate determine if they should even declare their candidacy. It also helps strong primary candidates convince their challengers to drop out. Polls help campaigns craft the candidate’s overall message and determine which messages work best with which voters. Polls help a candidate and campaign learn where their strengths and weaknesses are during a campaign, so they can correct mistakes quickly and engage voters in areas where they may not be doing as well as they should.

While polling data may be controversial for occasionally determining the wrong victor, like in 2016, they have a long history of accurately predicting the winners of a political campaign at any given point in history.  Polling data helps political candidates understand how to relate to the average voter, helps the average voter have a voice in the election process beyond their vote.  Whether you agree with their use or not, they’re here to stay.

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