Politicians, campaign contributors, news outlets, and the public all have come to rely on public opinion research (political polling) to guide them through the complex and shifting terrain of electoral contests. Polls have become such an expected component of modern political campaigns that often they are given greater consideration than they merit.
As a result of this widespread reliance on polls, surveys of public opinion can alter perceptions of the viability of a specific candidate or campaign. They also influence what issue positions candidates adopt, how candidates state their positions, and who candidates target (i.e., segments of the population such as minorities, whites, women, or suburbanites). The fact that polls are couched in the scientific language of "random samples" and "margins of error" only adds to their credibility among voters, campaign donors, and candidates who may have little or no understanding of how these concepts should be used when interpreting polling data.
News organizations, pollsters, parties, and political campaigns publish poll results to feed news coverage, talk shows, and blogs starved for political news during the long campaign "season," which in Texas starts months before the March primaries in even numbered years. Cable talk shows in particular increasingly resort to "instant polls," fluffy features that allow viewers to register their opinions on the Internet as they watch television. These "polls" merely survey the opinions of those program viewers who have an Internet connection and who care enough to make the effort to respond online. News anchors and talk show hosts recite that the results are "not scientific," but they encourage viewer participation and they share the inevitably biased results at the end of the show, anyway.
The presentation of poll results as news and the use of instant Internet polls both point to the curious status polls have gained. They have become important sources of useful political knowledge for the public. But how voters use polls remains unclear. One theory, the "bandwagon effect," suggests that voters may incorporate polls into their assessments of a candidate's chance of winning an election and that undecided voters are likely to cast their votes for the candidate they think is a likely winner.
However voters may use polls, the ubiquity of poll results requires citizens to develop basic skills in interpreting them. Concern over the misuse and misinterpretation of polls has led universities and other public interest groups to develop and distribute easy-to-use guidelines for interpreting polls. One of the best and most accessible guides to understanding and interpreting polls is the Roper Center's Polling 101, which explains how polls are conducted and what consumers of political information should be on the lookout for when interpreting polls.
In 2008, the Texas Politics Project initiated a statewide political survey, the results of which are made publicly available in the Polling chapterof this website. In 2010, the Texas Politics Project formed a partnership with The Texas Tribune to share in the analysis and distribution of a series of surveys of self-reported registered voters in Texas.