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How To Win An Election

Excerpted from “How To” by Randall Munroe. Copyright © 2019 by Randall Munroe. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Winning elections is hard. The truth is, people are complicated, there are a lot of them, and no one is ever 100 percent sure why they do what they do or what they’re going to do next.

But if your goal is simply to win an election, then as a general rule you should be for things that voters like and against things they dislike. To do that, you’ll need to figure out what the voters like and dislike. One of the most popular tools for figuring out what the public thinks is opinion polling — talking to a bunch of people, asking them what they think and tallying up the results. The website FiveThirtyEight has conducted an exercise in which they had professional speechwriters write a speech that simply pandered as much as possible — only making statements that most voters support, to pander either to one party or to the electorate in general.

But what do we agree on the most? If your goal is simply to be in favor of popular things and against unpopular things, what should you campaign on? What are the least controversial issues in the country?

To help figure this out, I reached out to Kathleen Weldon, director of data operations and communications at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University, to commission a poll of their polls. The Roper Center maintains a tremendous database of opinion polling data — over 700,000 polling questions spanning almost a century of opinion polling, collected from virtually every organization that has ever conducted a public poll in the United States.

I told them I was looking for the most one-sided questions in their polling database — the questions where virtually everyone gave the same answer. In a sense, these would be the least divisive issues in the country.

The Roper research staff sifted through their database of 700,000 questions and assembled a list of those questions for which at least 95 percent of respondents gave the same answer.

It’s pretty rare for that many respondents to agree on anything in a poll. A small percentage of respondents will often choose ridiculous answers because they’re not taking the poll seriously or because they misunderstand the question. But one-sided questions are also rare because no one bothers to conduct polls on uncontroversial topics unless they’re trying to prove a point. Since everything in the Roper database is something that some person or organization bothered to commission a poll to ask, it means it’s at least potentially controversial, if not actually so.

Here is a selection of the most one-sided issues in the history of polling. If you want to run for office, these are views you can safely espouse, secure in the knowledge that at least one scientific survey puts the people squarely behind you:

  • 95 percent disapprove of people using cell phones in movie theaters. (Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel Poll, 2014)
  • 97 percent believe there should be laws against texting while driving. (The New York Times/CBS News Poll, 2009)
  • 96 percent have a positive impression of small business. (Gallup Poll, 2016)
  • 95 percent believe employers should not be able to access the DNA of their employees without permission. (Time/CNN/Yankelovich Partners Poll, 1998)
  • 95 percent support laws against money laundering involving terrorism. (Washington Post Poll, 2001)
  • 95 percent think doctors should be licensed. (Private Initiatives & Public Values, 1981)
  • 95 percent would support going to war if the United States were invaded. (Harris Survey, 1971)
  • 96 percent oppose legalizing crystal meth. (CNN/ORC International Poll, 2014)
  • 95 percent are satisfied with their friends. (Associated Press/Media General Poll, 1984)
  • 95 percent say that “if a pill were available that made you twice as good looking as you are now, but only half as smart,” they would not take it. (Men’s Health Work Survey, 2000)
  • 98 percent believe adults should watch swimmers rather than reading or talking on the phone. (American Red Cross Water Safety Poll, 2013)
  • 99 percent think it’s wrong for employees to steal expensive equipment from their workplace. (NBC News Poll, 1995)
  • 95 percent think it’s wrong to pay someone to do a term paper for you. (NBC News Poll, 1995)
  • 98 percent would like to see a decline in hunger in the world. (Harris Survey, 1983)
  • 97 percent would like to see a decline in terrorism and violence. (Harris Survey, 1983)
  • 98% would like to see an end to high unemployment. (Harris Survey, 1982)
  • 95 percent would like to see an end to all wars. (Harris Survey, 1981)
  • 95 percent would like to see a decline in prejudice. (Harris Survey, 1977)
  • 95 percent don’t believe Magic 8 Balls can predict the future. (Shell Poll, 1998)
  • 96 percent think the Olympics are a great sports competition. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution Poll, 1996)

You can use this list to assemble a campaign platform. For example, you could stand firmly against hunger, war and terrorism; for friendship and small business; and against texting while driving. You could support laws that ensure doctors are properly licensed and oppose allowing other countries to invade.

On the other hand, if you wanted to lose an election as spectacularly as possible, this list could be even more helpful as a blueprint. By taking the opposing position on each issue, you could potentially run the most unpopular political campaign in political history. You’d probably lose, but who knows!

Randall Munroe is the author of “What If?” and “Thing Explainer,” the science question-and-answer blog What If, and the popular webcomic xkcd. A former NASA roboticist, he left the agency in 2006 to draw comics on the internet full-time.

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