Sorting Out the Numbers of Political Polls

Friday, November 4, 2016


Sorting Out the Numbers of Political Polls

As the presidential election race intensifies, so do predictions from political polls. Polls employ a range of methodologies to forecast the favored candidate, including random sampling, weighting for political party, and aggregating data from other polls. Scott Keeter from the Pew Research Center offers tips on deciphering the stats, and discusses how big data and social media might be used to gauge the sentiments of voters in the future.



I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. This is Science Friday.. I’m Ira Flatow. The election season is mercifully drawing to a close. We can all breathe a sigh of relief. This means that the pundits and the pollsters are ramping up their presidential predictions. is forecasting an 86% to 13% split for Secretary Clinton. The New York Times gives Hillary a 92% chance of winning. Fox News is putting Donald Trump up by one point. What does any of this tell us? Can we pull out any useful information from these stats? And how can we make polling more predictive in the future?

My next guest is here to walk us through all of this. Scott Keeter is a Senior Survey Advisor at the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC. Welcome to Science Friday..

You can find the full transcript at





Warm up questions

  1. What is a poll and what do you already know about them?
  2. Where do you most often see polls mentioned? What topics are they usually focused on?
  3. Do you believe the result of a poll when you see one? Why or why not?


Critical thinking questions

  1. Do presidential polls differ from normal public opinion surveys? Compare and contrast their similarities and differences.
  2. What makes a good question for a poll? How would you design a question or survey so you got the information you wanted? 
  3. What is the basic process for taking a poll? What are the pitfalls you would need to watch out for? How could you improve the process?
  4. Do you think polling is valuable? Why or why not?


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