In any democratic country, I guess, sometimes politicians want to see whether an idea is acceptable in the prevailing public opinion, but at the same time they don't want to reveal their position on an issue until they are sure of the outcome.

Something like this happens in case of controversial issues where politicians want their action placed in a positive perspective and where to express an unpopular idea may be problematic.

So, my question is, is there a term for when a politician sends an anonymous idea to see whether the public is receptive?

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    Does it have to be specifically in the context of politicians?
    – iterums
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 14:47
  • 3
    Business as usual?
    – JohnP
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 17:44
  • 2
    I know this place is not for joking, but i can't help it :: is 'lie' the word you are looking for ? Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 19:01

10 Answers 10


A trial balloon is “an idea, suggestion, or prospective action, product, etc. offered to an audience or group in order to test whether it generates acceptance or interest”. A trial balloon can be generated sort of secretly or deniably via a planned leak. A related term is stalking horse, “A candidate put forward instead of any of several potentially successful candidates in order to initiate a leadership debate, gauge feelings, divide opposition etc.”

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    And the verb form is "to float a trial balloon". Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 2:03
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    That was very informative, but I'm not sure how "stalking horse" is related to the other two or the question, except for also being related to politics.
    – Sundar R
    Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 10:56
  • @Sundar, a stalking horse is a particular kind of trial balloon. Less clearly, so is a straw man (“An insubstantial concept, idea, endeavor or argument, particularly one deliberately set up to be weakly supported, so that it can be easily knocked down; especially to impugn the strength of any related thing or idea”) Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 14:22

Test the water(s)

  • The politician tried to test the waters with his latest manoeuvre.

This idiom may not meet all your constraints, but comes close.

To try to ascertain probable reaction or response before making a proposal, selling a product, etc

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    Expression straw poll (“A survey of opinion which is unofficial, casual, or ad hoc”) may be related too. Commented Sep 5, 2013 at 2:41

The phrase I've heard most often for this is kite-flying:-

the act of trying to find out what people's opinion about something new will be by informally spreading news of it

  • Huh, never heard of that one, +1. Is it exclusive to the UK?
    – terdon
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 14:54
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    This source here suggests it is in use in American English; my original source said Australian and British, so my conclusion is: I don't know. Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 14:56
  • I've heard both trial balloon and kite flying, but the former is more common in my experience, i.e. hearing. Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 16:36
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    I've heard kite-flying in the UK, but not trail balloon.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 18:43

He could run it up the flagpole and see who salutes.

The linked article mentions "trial balloon" as a more serious alternative.


The closest I can think of is leaking :

2) Informal To disclose without authorization or official sanction: leaked classified information to a reporter.

I had not heard of kite-flying but that sounds perfect. It seems to be more of a British/Irish/Australian (Commonwealth?) term but according to this page an American equivalent might be

Raising the flag to see who salutes

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    I would have said that leaking refers to disclosure of actual information - and your quoted definition seems to confirm that. That is rather different from floating an idea.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 15:48
  • @TrevorD yes, I was thinking of a politician leaking a draft of a proposed law for example to see the public's reaction.
    – terdon
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 15:52
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    Leaking is what Snowden did. The public reacted negatively. But it is too late for the NSA. If the NSA anonymously proposed a surveillance state and been prepared to disavow the proposal, it would be more like the OP's request.
    – emory
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 19:23
  • @emory yes leaking is what Snowden did (some people reacted negatively, others positively by the way). That is not the only context watch any political or cop movie and you will see people intentionally leaking information for various reasons. One of which is sometimes to test public reaction to a proposed idea, for example by leaking a memo or a white paper as opposed to a finished proposal.
    – terdon
    Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 17:26
  • "is there a term for when a politician sends an anonymous idea to see whether the public is receptive?" I think leaking covers the politician sending an anonymous idea, but I think it is too broad. Leaks can be unintentional as well, or done intentionally for political reasons other than floating trial balloons
    – PeterL
    Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 18:20

One normally talks of floating an idea, although that does not imply anonymity.


The pseudonym that the politician would be writing under is known as a proxy. In software development, a business that hides someone else's intentions is known as a shell. The politician would be known as a shill: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shill

You could also say that the politician was trolling for opinions under another name.

I hope these help.


Market testing or focus group.

  • +1 for focus group/Market testing.. not sure about that last one :)
    – Gus
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 21:40
  • -1 for the inappropriate & gratuitous last suggestion.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 23:28

"Test balloon" or "trial balloon" is a term for an idea that is spread around (rumours, leaks) but has deniability.


Such a pol might be presenting statements as an anonymous "sock puppet" or using fake psuedonyms or usernames to get it done, or sending out staff as "proxies" to do the dirty work for him, trying out ideas on his behalf.

Often the "editorial board" of a newspaper fails to reveal its membership or who actually writes the opinions. Frequently it is the rich & powerful (such as pols) who have severe conflicts of interest and tell lies of ommission.

But there is no one word or phrase for this concept, not generally, and none whatsoever that uniquely apply to politicians alone.

  • Sock puppets advocate an established position, and are not about the feedback.
    – MSalters
    Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 10:04
  • No, sock puppets hide the true identity of a person, creating the false impression that a crowd exists when it does not. Whether or not the sock puppets are used to "advocate an established position" is another matter.
    – Ace Frahm
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 7:31