How to Use an Online Straw Poll to Gauge the Public Opinion

Politicians use them all the time, Donald Trump boastfully tweets about their results, so why wouldn’t you give straw polls a shot as well? Before making an important move or decision, it’s always wise to gauge the popular opinion on the issue. That way you’ll be able to make a more informed decision or confidently proceed with the one you’ve already made.

If you’ve got no time to spare and need a quick check of your target audience’s pulse, a straw poll might just be the right solution for you.

What is a Straw Poll?

A straw poll is an unofficial or ad-hoc vote that tells you what’s the public opinion on a given issue or person. Its main purpose is to help people make more informed decisions. There are two kinds of straw polls – scientific and unscientific:

  • A scientific straw poll uses random sampling controls to provide a sample that can be considered as a statistical representation of the entire population
  • An unscientific straw poll is conducted without any sampling controls

straw poll

Both types of polls provide you with instant results for making snappy decisions. Unscientific straw polls are often spontaneous and, as such, can be used to gauge the opinion and the amount of support for a certain idea from larger groups of people.

According to its dictionary entry, the origin of the idiom “straw poll” may allude to “a straw (thin plant stalk) held up to see in what direction the wind blows, in this case, the wind of group opinion.”

Areas of Application of Straw Polls

A straw poll can be used in different areas of life, but it’s most often associated with politics. Throughout history, politicians have used straw polls to measure popular attitudes and opinions, while in the United States, political straw polls became particularly popular in the early 20th century as a means of predicting the presidential election results.

Today, many political candidates still use straw polls to check the pulse of the nation and later use the obtained data to revise their campaign strategy. They help them gain insight into why voters are opting for their opposition and enable them to change their own approach to the campaign.

In addition to politics, straw polls have found their application in digital marketing and business as well. Marketers and entrepreneurs can, for instance, poll customers in order to get suggestions on how to improve their product or service. It’s also possible to use a straw poll to learn how your product or service ranks against the competitors.

A Brief History of Straw Polls

Let’s travel back in time, to the year of 1936. Prior to that year’s US presidential election, The Literary Digest conducted one of the biggest polls in history, which polled 10 million people, out of which 2.4 million actually responded.

According to its results, Alf Landon was supposed to become the President of the United States, with 57% of votes. Anybody remembers President Landon? Of course not. Why? He never won the elections, meaning that one of the biggest polls ever was spot on wrong. What went wrong?

straw poll election


The Literary Digest poll was sent out to all the people whose information could be found in telephone books and motor vehicle registries. So, why was there a discrepancy between the results and the actual representation of the voters’ opinion? 

The fact is that during the Great Depression in the US, many Americans didn’t actually own phones and cars, which is why they were never even consulted in this poll. As it turned out the majority of the non-consulted were in favor of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who got elected that year with 62% of the votes. 

Back to the present. Nowadays, most of the straw polls sample around 1,000 people, which compared to the Literary Digest’s 2.4 million seems insignificant. But still, modern polls rarely get it so wrong as the 1936 poll did. How come? It’s crucial to poll a relevant cross-section of the population.

The actuality of straw polls is evident in the recent annual gathering of conservatives, President Trump recently tweeted about. The 1,155 attendees of the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) expressed their huge support for Trump, who earned a 93% approval rate. In addition, the straw poll results show that 75% support Trump’s immigration policy, while 79% think Republicans should be doing a better job when it comes to advancing and promoting his agenda. Still, around half of the poll takers think the president should tweet less.

trump tweet


While these results probably accurately reflect the opinions of the majority of conservatives in the US, they may not be the most accurate indicator of the entire nation’s attitude towards the work of the current US president. 

So, once again, in order to obtain as reliable results as possible, you need to create a straw poll that will evaluate all those people who use your main distribution channels, while helping you figure out a way to reach people not in those channels. Of course, in order to do so, you’ll need to use the right tool as well.

How to Create a Reliable Online Straw Poll?

Do not make the same mistake the Literary Digest made in 1936 – you need to keep in mind the diversity of your voters and design your poll so as to cater to the majority of them. Pay special attention to the design – choose a clear font and an adequate color scheme.

By using image questions, you can make a straw poll more visually appealing and, more importantly, you can clarify the answer options to the poll takers. For example, some voters may not know political candidates by their name but are familiar with their appearance or the party they belong to. So, displaying candidates’ photos or their political party’s logo may solve that problem.

When creating a straw poll, think short and sweet – you don’t want to put off potential takers by asking for too much information or by making the straw poll too long. Often, just one or two poll questions are enough to help you find out more about the issues that matter the most to both you and your respondents.

Come up with Quality Straw Poll Questions

When creating a straw poll, you want to put some extra thought into the question itself. The same goes for other types of content where questions are a vital part, such as online quizzes.

As words tend to sway people, you’d want your question to be as unbiased as possible. For instance, in the 2014 referendum for Scottish independence, the initial question “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” was rephrased to “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Why?

Due to a phenomenon inherent in the human nature, referred to as the acquiescence response bias, poll takers tend to agree with such “do you agree” questions more often than disagree, regardless of the content. People generally don’t like disagreeing, which is why it’s always better to ask unbiased questions that are not misleading in any way – at least if you want to get the results that are as objective as possible.

When it comes to straw polls, there is also the danger of a first-listing bias phenomenon, where the candidate who is listed first is likely to gain a greater number of votes than the second one. In order to prevent that from happening, you should try randomizing the answers as much as possible.

Straw Poll vs. Likert Scale Questionnaire

Just like with a straw poll, the main purpose of a Likert scale is to measure attitudes. The main advantage of a Likert Scale questionnaire, in comparison to the binary yes/no questions, is that it offers more degrees of agreement or disagreement. By offering more degrees of opinion, you’re more likely to receive valuable and relevant feedback from the questionnaire takers, especially when it comes to less concrete concepts that can’t be easily measured. The data obtained in this way can help you further improve your product or service.

leadquizzes likert scale

Like straw polls, Likert scale questions are particularly useful for measuring people’s opinions on a specific topic, the difference being that they enable you to do a bit more in-depth research. Although we more often associate straw polls with politics-related attitudes and opinions, both Likert-style questionnaires and straw polls have found their application in business and marketing and can be used in almost any situation, including a new product release, customer service experience, recent developments at the company, examining the success of an event, and so on.

Whether you opt for a straw poll or a Likert scale questionnaire, it’s always useful to know which way the wind of the public opinion blows. It’s also important that your poll contains all the right ingredients, which is why you should consider using one of the most popular online quiz makers when creating your own.

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Build Your Email List By 100K This Year Using Quizzes

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