14 political survey questions to gauge public opinion

Whether you work in academia or the political sphere, polling audiences with the right political survey questions can give you useful insights about public opinion.

For example, academics often create political surveys to understand trends in public attitudes on specific issues, political parties, or candidates.

Candidates typically use these types of surveys to gauge the public’s level of support for their candidacy and to ask questions about the issues that matter most to them.

“Using the insights they gain from political surveys, candidates can adjust their campaign approach — emphasizing or deemphasizing certain issues to win public favor,” says Timothy S. Rich, Ph.D., a professor of political science and the director of the International Public Opinion Lab at Western Kentucky University. He has published over 70 peer-reviewed articles and over 200 policy and op-ed pieces, and he teaches about survey construction.

For example, if a survey reveals that the public is animated about a certain issue, Rich says a candidate can showcase their agreement with it through campaign messaging and public speeches. “Of course, the opposite could also be true,” he says. “A candidate may realize from survey results that there aren’t as many supporters on a certain issue as they assumed.”

Beyond knowing what issues to focus on, Rich says a candidate may also be able to identify previously unknown issues that could be brought to the public’s attention.

So what kind of political survey questions can garner such useful insights? Keep reading to get Rich’s tips for designing a political survey and to see what questions Rich himself has used in his research.

4 tips for designing a political survey

1. Identify a specific audience

To get useful responses, you first have to clarify who you’re surveying and the inferences you want to make about that group. “If your goal is to understand support for a senatorial candidate, for example, you need a representative sample of would-be voters from that state,” says Rich.

Pro Tip

You can leverage demographic survey questions to specify your audience.

2. Determine the best surveying option

“Think about how you plan to survey people,” says Rich. “Is it by phone? By email? Snail mail? Response rates and the ability to get a representative sample can vary in difficulty based on the collection method.”

For example, you’ll typically receive more in-depth responses by phone, but it can be difficult to get people to commit to a call. Alternatively, online surveys can net you more responses, but the completion rate typically decreases as you increase the number of questions or their complexity.

Pro Tip

Check out our blog post to determine the best survey distribution channel that suits your needs.

3. Write clear questions

“As the survey creator, you may think the questions are clear, but they may be read differently [by others] based on partisanship, age, gender, race, and other factors, even on questions that you assumed were not explicitly partisan,” Rich explains.

When Rich teaches survey construction, he finds that well-meaning students often inadvertently write questions that could be offensive to certain respondents. In addition, questions that are double-barreled or that use a double negative will confuse even those who want to give honest answers. “It’s also surprisingly common to inadvertently leave off options or assume categories in a question that do not make sense to those being surveyed,” he notes.

Pro Tip

Check out our blog post on how to write good survey questions.

4. Consider the strength of your audience’s preferences

“With many issues, people may have an opinion, but that opinion isn’t necessarily a deeply held one — or it may be conditional based on how the question is worded,” says Rich. “This is particularly true for new issues, which respondents may not have thought about much yet or, in some cases, haven’t heard about until asked in the survey.”

Similarly, if a question includes a scale — e.g., strongly disagree to strongly agree — Rich says to consider whether a neutral response such as neither means they haven’t made up their mind, don’t care, or something else entirely. These factors may impact how you construct your survey to elicit accurate responses.

Pro Tip

Learn how to include a likert scale question in your survey with our free and complete guide — and see how you can get started with Jotform!

14 political survey questions to gauge public sentiment in the U.S.

1. How old are you? (and other demographic questions)

Before you dive into the political survey questions, Rich recommends starting with some demographic queries to identify whether your sample appears to be representative of the general population:

  • How old are you?
  • In what U.S. state do you currently reside?
  • What is your approximate average yearly household income?
  • What level of education have you completed?

These questions also reveal opinion patterns or trends across those demographic factors.

2. Do you live in a rural, suburban, or urban area?

“Where someone lives sometimes impacts their political views, so having a question like this is useful for qualifying their responses,” Rich explains.

3. Do you currently have a child in the K–12 education system?

Rich notes that he asked this question on a recent political survey because he was interested in seeing if this group of respondents would have stronger opinions on issues such as transgender student athletes and school curriculum.

4. What is your race? Are you of Hispanic origin?

Rich typically asks these as separate questions, with the first offering a checklist where respondents can select multiple options and the second offering simply yes and no options.

Why separate questions? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanic is not a race. “In addition, asking both questions enables you to see whether respondents’ views differ on race and ethnicity. Most respondents will only check one, but since someone can be multiracial, this allows them to choose all that apply.”

5. What is your sexual orientation?

“I’ve only included this question on surveys in which we are asking questions about LGBT issues, as we assume those who identify as LGBT will be more supportive of pro-LGBT policies,” Rich explains.

6. With which political party do you most closely identify?

Rich always includes “none” and “other” as options in addition to the standard “Republican” and “Democrat” options. He explains, “Many people may vote consistently for a party but not actually identify with the party. Swing voters do still exist too. Moreover, there are some who identify as Libertarians, Greens, or other small parties — not having that option would force those respondents to say ’none,’ which would be inaccurate.”

7. Who did you vote for in the last presidential election?

“The same logic applies here as with the political party question,” says Rich. Some may have voted for the Libertarian candidate, while others may not have voted at all. “That said,” he continues, “evidence shows that survey respondents frequently say they have voted when they did not.”

8. On a scale from 1 (extremely dissatisfied) to 10 (extremely satisfied), how satisfied are you with how democracy works in the United States?

Rich says that scale questions give more information than a simple binary option. “For one survey, I wanted to see not only the respondents’ level of satisfaction, but if that satisfaction differed among groups (e.g., income level, party identification, etc.).”

9. Please evaluate the following statement: Democracy may have its problems, but it is better than any other form of government.

This is a Likert scale question that’s commonly used to evaluate the level of support for an issue. Rich says a lot of cross-national surveys ask this question, as it taps into underlying support for democracy as a whole. “Strong disagreement here is typically a sign of a lack of faith in democracy or nostalgia for authoritarianism, both of which should be concerning.”

10. Please evaluate the following statement: The First Amendment protects people like me.

“I asked this in a recent survey to see if people thought the First Amendment only protected other people,” Rich explains. “I did find some minor differences based on the race of respondents.”

11. Do you own a firearm?

If your survey concerns gun control or perceptions of gun legislation, Rich says this is a crucial question to ask. “We would assume a difference between owners and non-gun owners, and this difference is significant in many areas of gun control. Yet, surveys often just include party identification — with the assumption that Republicans are more likely to say they own a gun — when that does not actually measure ownership.”

12. Which foreign country do you see as the biggest threat to U.S. interests?

Open-ended questions like this can be very helpful in that the respondent is not forced to choose an option that does not fit their actual beliefs. The trade-off is that many respondents may not have an opinion,” Rich explains.

Rich has also asked similar questions such as this one on surveys: What do you see as the biggest domestic issue facing the United States today?

13. With your best guess, what percentage of the federal budget do you think is spent on foreign aid?

For this question, Rich provides a scale from 0 to 100. He says the public is typically way off on their estimate. “They assume around 25 percent or more of the budget is used for aid when in reality it’s typically 1 percent or less. This in part captures knowledge of aid, but also can be used to understand why the public may be opposed to international assistance more broadly.”

As a follow-up to this question, Rich typically also asks this question: Do you think that the United States is now spending too much, too little, or about the right amount on foreign aid?

14. In your opinion, is it easy to acquire refugee status to enter the United States?

As part of this yes/no question, Rich provides context for the term refugee — according to U.S. law, refugee status is granted while a person is still outside the United States.

“I define the term refugee so that respondents do not confuse refugees with undocumented or documented immigrants,” Rich explains. “I assume that part of the hostility toward refugees may be in believing the process to acquire the status is too easy — that they are not vetted. Such beliefs are inaccurate, but knowing that someone holds these beliefs partially helps to explain opposition to resettling refugees.”

A powerful way to deliver your political survey questions

Political surveys are easy to create with Jotform’s Survey Maker, which helps keep participants engaged and boosts completion rates. Customize any survey template to your liking, then track and analyze your survey data with Jotform’s real-time reporting and data analysis tools. Start your survey journey today with this political survey or this political poll.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov

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