The People's Wishes: Opinion Polling in the United States

The People's Wishes: Opinion Polling in the United States
Louisa Adams: Law, Politics and Govt

Skill: Elementary School
Time Required: 2-3 days

Required Documents
Public Opinion Polls Worksheet


In the history of the United States, the first election to be hotly contested was the election of 1824 between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. There were also two other candidates involved in the election but it came down to Adams and Jackson who had very different views of how the government should be run. It was during this election that the first opinion polls were taken. Newspapers often augmented their election coverage by interviewing voters as they left the polling place. These impromptu interviews were called "straw polls," and the first one recorded in the U.S. took place in 1824. By the turn of the century they were common in both local and national newspapers and magazines. We live in a nation in which the beliefs of the people are important not only in daily life but also in the role and actions of the government. Our nation is based on two major principals one being the idea of democracy or rule by the people and the other is capitalism or the idea that the country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit. In order to be successful in both the political and economic arenas of our American life the general wants and needs of the people must be understood. Opinion polls provide this information for the people who need it. 


1)      The students will be able to define the terms, opinion poll, sample, and bias.

2)      The students will be able to accurately express the pros and cons of public opinion polls.

3)      The students will create their own opinion poll based on a topic important to them.

Materials Required:

Computer with internet access;  Student response system (if available);  LCD Projector and screen or interactive board;  Public Opinion Polls Work Sheet.


1)   The teacher will begin the lesson by having the students answer some opinion poll questions. The teacher will have a list of school subjects on the board and will ask the students to vote on their favorite subject from the list. They will do this by raising their hands and the teacher will tally the votes.

2)      The teacher will then tell the class they are going to take another poll. This time however, the polling will be secret. This can be done by using a student response system such as Turning Point, or by making small handmade ballots. The teacher should choose topics that may be controversial to students in the class. Some ideas may be things such as bed times required by their parents, school dress code, report card grades in certain subjects, etc. The teacher must be sure to let the students know that their answers will be anonymous. Trust in the anonymity must exist. Tally the results and discuss them.

3)      The teacher will then lead a discussion about the validity of each poll. The teacher will ask the students if any of them chose a subject because they saw a friend choose the same one. The idea is that some polls can be swayed by outside influences that don’t give a clear picture of the sample population.

4)      The teacher will then show the video entitled Pros and Cons of Public Opinion Polls by Jason Robert Jaffe. This video can be found in the list of web resources below.  Following the video the students will complete the Public Opinion Polls Work Sheet. This can be an individual or small group assignment. The teacher may even want to complete it as a class stopping the video to discuss and fill in answers. The completed worksheet will function as notes for the next part of the lesson.

5)      In the final portion of the lesson the students will create their own opinion poll. This task may be individual or completed in partners or small groups. The students must keep in mind what they have learned about polling and have accurate samples that are not too narrow or small; also they should not show bias in the way the questions are asked.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson could be extended by adding math concepts such as graphing and data analysis. The students could take the poll results and graph them and then analyze the data. The graphing could be done in a spreadsheet program such as Microsoft Excel and this would address a technology standards.

Sources & Resources:


The History of Opinion Polling

Pros and Cons of Opinion Polls

Building Your Own Public Opinion Poll


Credits:  This lesson was developed by Robert McClelland, Cleveland Metropolitan School District.