Overview of the Gallup Poll
The Gallup Poll is the division of Gallup, Inc. that regularly conducts public opinion polls in more than 140 countries around the world. Historically, the Gallup Poll has measured and tracked the public's attitudes concerning virtually every political, social, and economic issue of the day, including highly sensitive or controversial subjects. It is very well known when it comes to presidential election polls and is often referenced in the mass media as a reliable and objective audience measurement of public opinion. Its results, analyses, and videos are published daily on Gallup.com in the form of data-driven news. The poll has been around since 1935.
How Does Gallup Choose its Samples?
The Gallup Poll is an opinion poll that uses probability sampling. In a probability sample, each individual has an equal opportunity of being selected. This helps generate a sample that can represent the attitudes, opinions, and behaviors of the entire population.
In the United States, from 1935 to the mid-1980s, Gallup typically selected its sample by selecting residences from all geographic locations. Interviewers would go to the selected houses and ask whatever questions were included in that poll, such as who the interviewee was planning to vote for in an upcoming election (Figure 1).
There were a number of problems associated with this method. First of all, it was expensive and inefficient. Over time, Gallup realized that it needed to come up with a more effective way to collect data rapidly. In addition, there was the problem of nonresponse. Certain people did not wish to answer the door to a stranger, or simply declined to answer the questions the interviewer asked.
In 1986, Gallup shifted most of its polling to the telephone. This provided a much quicker way to poll many people. In addition, it was less expensive because interviewers no longer had to travel all over the nation to go to someone's house. They simply had to make phone calls. To make sure that every person had an equal opportunity of being selected, Gallup used a technique called random digit dialing. A computer would randomly generate phone numbers found from telephone exchanges for the sample. This method prevented problems such as undercoverage, which could occur if Gallup had chosen to select numbers from a phone book (since not all numbers are listed). When a house was called, the person over eighteen with the most recent birthday would be the one to respond to the questions.
A major problem with this method arose in the mid-late 2000s, when the use of cell phones spiked. More and more people in the United States were switching to using only their cell phones over landline telephones. Now, Gallup polls people using a mix of landlines and cell phones. Some people claim that the ratio they use is incorrect, which could result in a higher percentage of error.
Sample Size and Error
A lot of people incorrectly assume that in order for a poll to be accurate, the sample size must be huge. In actuality, small sample sizes that are chosen well can accurately represent the entire population, with, of course, a margin of error. Gallup typically uses a sample size of 1,000 people for its polls. This results in a margin of error of about 4%. To make sure that the sample is representative of the whole population, each respondent is assigned a weight so that demographic characteristics of the weighted sample match those of the entire population (based on information from the US Census Bureau). Gallup weighs for gender, race, age, education, and region.
Potential for Inaccuracy
Despite all the work done to make sure a poll is accurate, there is room for error. Gallup still has to deal with the effects of nonresponse bias, because people may not answer their cell phones. Because of this selection bias, the characteristics of those who agree to be interviewed may be markedly different from those who decline. Response bias may also be a problem, which occurs when the answers given by respondents do not reflect their true beliefs. In addition, it is well established that the wording of the questions, the order in which they are asked, and the number and form of alternative answers offered can influence results of polls. Finally, there is still the problem of coverage bias. Although most people in the United States either own a home phone or a cell phone, some people do not (such as the homeless). These people can still vote, but their opinions would not be taken into account in the polls.