What is a Straw Poll?

A straw poll is an informal opinion survey. The term “straw poll” is thought to have come from an 1800s American farmland practice of tossing “straws in the wind” to test wind direction. By the 1820s, some American newspapers included a straw poll that informally surveyed public opinion as a way of testing the direction of the political ‘winds.’

An earlier use of a similar phrase can be found in Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice, Act I, scene 1: ‘I should be still/Plucking the grass to know where sits the wind.’.

The most famous straw poll was the presidential one conducted and published in 1936 by an American magazine called The Literary Digest. The Digest’s straw poll results had many people thinking that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would lose by a large majority, but instead he won by a large majority. Their mailing list, which they used for their straw poll, was comprised of names from motor vehicle registries and telephone books only. The names on that list did not cover the many Americans of that time who were too poor to have either a car or a telephone.

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