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George Gallup, Jr. Interview


George Gallup, Jr. of The Gallup Organization, Princeton, New Jersey, is the son of George Gallup Sr., the firmís founder and one of the originators of the opinion poll. 

He is the author of Surveying the Religious Landscape: Trends in U.S. Beliefs and other works about American public opinion.

George Gallup, Jr.


QUESTION: How did your father become interested in public opinion polling? 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: Well, I think you could say, probably, that his early interest that led to his getting involved in polling stemmed from his natural curiosity. He was a good listener all his life. He liked to talk to people and search them out. And so, from that point of view, polling was a natural outcropping. But, more specifically, the poll grew out of my father's efforts for his Ph.D. thesis at Iowa to develop what is called the 'readership method,' which is still used today. Prior to the time, newspapers would simply ask people what they read in the paper. And, of course, that was not very trustworthy testimony because most people would say, of course, I read the headlines, you know, and all the important news, and that sort of thing. So, my dad took the simple measure of actually taking a sample newspaper around to people, and asking them specifically did they read that particular column or not. And that's the readership method, and that's used today in advertising. And that was a great breakthrough because up to that time, editors had been relying upon testimony that wasn't accurate. 

My dad also developed what is call the 'coincidental method' of measuring how many people are listening to a particular radio show, which is simply asking people at the time either in personal interviews or over the telephone, but mostly personal in those days, what they were listening to on the radio. So he went directly to the people. And up to that time, the approach had been to ask people, what did listen to last week, and so forth. And the prestige factor often operated in those circumstances. 

QUESTION: How did he get exposed to politics and electioneering? 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: My dad did some polling in my grandmother's race for Secretary of State [of Iowa] in 1932. My grandfather had run for the governorship four years earlier, in the mid-1920s, and as a Democrat and lost, but he did very well, incidentally. And my grandmother was running as a Democrat, a woman, and it was unheard of for a woman or a Democrat to win high office in Iowa, and it was a family joke, her being on the ticket. But she won, and she won quite handily. And then she swept back into office with FDR in 1936. And so she was, as far as we know, the first woman secretary of state of any state in this country. 

My mother also was very influential in picking my dad's future career. Not that she was wildly ambitious, you know, but she knew that he had certain great talents and interest and she urged him in his pursuit of polling, and they were an extraordinary team, my mother and father. Mom was very important to his career and everything else. Their marriage was legendary really. They were married in 1925, in 1926 my grandfather ran for governor of Iowa, lost, and as an honor they put my grandmother on the ticket. And my dad did some polling on her race, and his figures were within 1 percent of what she actually got. So that was probably the first scientific survey on politics, on a political race ever conducted in this country, as far as we know. 

His success in that election forecast, this informal effort on behalf of my grandmother, certainly inspired him and empowered him and inspired him to move forward with polling. And, subsequently, in the 1934 congressional election, he polled the race for Congress nationwide, and his figures, again, were within 1 percentage point of the outcome. Again, informally, he did not publish these findings, actually. So, emboldened, he started the Gallup Poll the following year, in 1935. 

QUESTION: Did this reflect his personal philosophy? 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: He basically had a very powerful desire to know the will of the people, and felt that in a democracy it's important to know the will of the people accurately all the time. So, he felt that polling had a great role in this country in a democracy, and also had a great role in the future of the country. 

The very first report that we sent to the newspapers in October 1935 had to do with the New Deal. And our findings indicated that the public thought the New Deal was costing too much. And so New Dealers were absolutely furious, of course. So, a barrage of criticism that accompanies poll results started in earnest at that point. The reason he chose that question was because it was certainly a major issue at the time, and the problem in polling and all these other challenges, of course, is to search out the big issues about which people are talking. And the New Deal was very much on people's minds, of course, that was perhaps one of the two or three really huge issues at the time. 

My dad is best described, I think, as a militant moderate, really. But he will take a position that might be Republican on one issue, and Democrat on the other. And it fits his definition of an intellectual really, as a person who really weighs both sides and doesn't relentlessly go down one side or the other of the ticket. He never voted in any presidential race. Actually the one and only in which he voted was in 1928. He voted for Al Smith. But subsequently has not voted, and he did not vote because he felt that he would either have to lie to reporters who were always asking him that, or he'd have to say he's a Republican or Democrat. And then reporters would say, ah-ha, this is biasing the questions. 

By the same token, it should be noted that he never failed to vote in local elections, because he believed very much in the power of the ballot box, and the need for citizens to vote. But he didn't vote on a national level. 

QUESTION: How do you explain that result of 1935, to the question about public relief? 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: The first release on the New Deal, people feeling it costing too much, and then later people wanting to help people through welfare and so forth. Well, you always have this kind of dichotomy. I mean, the American people want to be very helpful to the poor. By the same token, they don't want to pay high taxes. So, it's been a balance that the public has had to deal with over the years, and in the polling field we just have to be as careful as we can with questions to bring out this dichotomy. 

Another example of this dichotomy would be that the high percentage of the public, I guess 90 percent or so, wanting pensions for older people, and so forth, but yet the public doesn't want to spend a lot of money for it either. So, this is the kind of dichotomy that we're finding even today in the year 2000. 

QUESTION: Talk about the advent of scientific polling [using sampling]? 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: It had been around in academic settings and so forth, and Roper had started the Fortune Poll a few months earlier. And so, there were sporadic efforts to do it, but my dad brought it to the national scene through a syndicated newspaper service, actually. Well, the reaction to that first report was dismay among New Dealers, of course, and the attacks started immediately. How can you interview merely - I think in those days it was two or three thousand people - and project this to the entire country. 

That began to change, actually, the next year, when Gallup, Roper and Crossley, Archibald Crossley was a pollster, and Elmo Roper was another pollster, these were the three scientific pollsters, if you will, operating in 1936, and their success in the election, and the failure of the Literary Digest really changed some minds. And people started to think, well, maybe polls are accurate after all. 

QUESTION: Relate the story of the presidential election of 1936 [between Roosevelt and Landon] and your father's role in predicting the outcome. 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: In 1936, in the election year, my dad had the temerity to challenge the Literary Digest, which had developed an incredible record since the turn of the century in predicting elections. My dad had the temerity to predict how far off the mark they would be. You will have to check these figures, but he said that they'd be 19 points off, and they were 18 points [off]. So that was more accurate, that prediction, than our own at that time, but he and Crossley and Roper went on to predict that FDR would win. 

Now, the reason that the Literary Digest was way off the mark is that they had developed their sample from lists of car owners and telephone owners. And these tended to be more upscale than the average person. And up to that time, political lines didn't follow economic lines particularly. But in that race in 1936, political lines followed economic lines very sharply. So the Literary Digest in going to upscale people got a much more Republican figure. My dad attempted to get people of all political backgrounds, upscale and down scale, and so they were on the mark. The Literary Digest was way off the mark. The Gallup operation and, as I mentioned, Crossley and Roper were calling FDR the victor. 

The Literary Digest also assumed that the more people you interviewed, the closer you're going to get to the truth, the actual, and of course that's not so. As a matter of fact, they went to about a third of all households in the United States. And the assumption was, the more people you interview, of course, you're going closer to the truth. But, of course, the key is, whom are you interviewing, the characteristics of those people. 

QUESTION: Talk some more about the actual polling method used in the presidential election of 1936 [between Roosevelt and Landon]. 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: The process used in that election was in-person interviewing coupled with mail surveys as well in those days. Interviewing today is virtually entirely by telephone, although we still do - occasionally do in-person interviews. But in those days, it was strictly a combination of mail and in-person interviews. 

To find people we were using what we call the quota sample in those days. My dad had, after a great deal of experimentation - in fact he looked at the effect of fifty-four different questions in terms of demographics - determined that there were five key determinants of opinion, and they were age and sex, income, region, and so forth. And then he would send his interviewers out to get a quota of people from each of those groups. 

The 1936 election was, in my father's view, the most important turning point in his life. He's had many important turning points, but that was it, really, and he knew that the image and the future of polling rested in considerable measure on the outcome of that very obvious test of whether polls can find the truth, can get at the actual facts. 

As the election day approached, of course, he was very, very nervous. And he wasn't a smoker, but he would borrow people's cigarettes constantly, and they were in his mouth unlit. But he was, without question, very, very nervous, very concerned, very worried. But, he's always told me, he can go back to other careers, and he thinks that everybody should have two careers in mind, and he said I can always return and be a journalist, or a teacher, or a professor of journalism. 

When the results came in and he was proved right. I don't personally because I was six, but I know the stories are that he, you know - early on when the election returns came in, he knew that they would be - indicate the right, the winner of the outcome. And similarly with every other election, he probably knows more than - sooner than any other person in the country, you know, yes, things are going well, or, no, things are not going well, in the case of 1948. So early on that evening, I think, he probably popped a cork off a champagne bottle, and so forth. It was a very - it was an exhilarating moment, I know that. That election was a very, very key one, of course, a dramatic demonstration that scientific polls can be really, really close to the actual. And it, of course, helped him build up his newspaper subscribers, and so forth, with Harold Anderson, who ran Publisher's Syndicate in Chicago, Publisher's Hall Syndicate. And built up support among newspapers, actually, which has under-girded the Gallup Poll ever since. 

QUESTION: How did the Gallup name become synonymous with opinion polling? 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: I suppose that the name Gallup is better known than some of the other pollsters who started early on then. I think the factors involved in that are because we were widely syndicated in the newspapers all across the country, because we had an excellent election record over the years, and continue to have an excellent election record, so that helps our reputation certainly. The fact that we went overseas, actually, and started affiliates. As early as the late 1930s, we were tying up with other organizations overseas informally. And that, of course, has grown into a huge operation, the overseas operation. So, I think all of those factors contributed to it. And my dad was - you know, he spoke fairly frequently and wrote articles, and so forth, and he was a real student of this field. So, I think all of those factors conspired to give the name some recognition. 

QUESTION: What was your father's view of the importance of the opinion poll? 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: My dad thought that polls were absolutely vital to a democracy, and he'd like to quote James Bryce, who said that the challenge is to know the will of the people at all times. And he'd like to quote Samuel Stouffer from Harvard, who said that polls are the most useful instrument of democracy ever devised. 

He felt that polls were extremely important because they removed the power from lobbying groups, and from smoke-filled rooms, and let the public into the act. It was the way to let the public speak, to hear the public. And so he felt that is so vital in a democracy that people - each person, in effect, through a survey is able to express his or her views on anything. 

QUESTION: What was the immediate impact of the result of the 1936 election [where Roosevelt beat Landon]? 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: I would say that the 1936 election really put the so-called "scientific pollsters" on the map. My father, George Gallup, Archibald Crossley and Elmo Roper, because it was a very dramatic demonstration of the power - rather the accuracy - of scientific polling versus other kinds of surveys, that relied on sheer numbers, or samples that weren't representative. 

QUESTION: What happened in the presidential election of 1948 between Dewey and Truman? 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: Well, everybody remembers the 1948 election, at least if you're that age, and maybe eventually talk of that will die out, but it was the time that polls were really off the mark. And it's important to bear in mind that the 1948 election didn't mean that the polling mechanism was worthless, it wouldn't function at all. In fact, one can pinpoint the reasons all pollsters went off the mark, actually, and that was simply that we stopped polling too soon, missed the collapse of support for other parties . . . And that vote went back to traditional voting patterns, in this case towards the Democratic side and towards Truman. But, our having stopped polling too soon, we missed the collapse of support and the return of that to major parties. This typically happens in every election, it has during the turn of the century, that a vote for third parties will collapse in closing days, because it's typically in the nature of a protest vote. But, we didn't know that at that time, so we stopped polling early and missed the collapse of support. So that was the big reason. 

Another factor, but of less importance, was in the allocation of the undecided vote. Prior to 1948 we decided, or assumed, that the undecided would vote the way the decided did. So we split them accordingly. But, the fact of the matter is that a person who is truly undecided is truly undecided. And the safest way is to split it right down the middle. So when we started doing that we got much closer. And, of course, one of the big challenges in election polling is to deal with the undecided, and ultimately we look at the undecided in terms of issues to see which party or which candidate it will go to, and we end up with no undecided. Some organizations, polling organizations, will leave a high undecided so they can fiddle with that later and say well, if they had gone this way we would have been right, and so forth. But, we feel that the public expects us to stand up to the fire really, and come up with an actual figure, a two-way figure in the race, and so forth. So the allocation of the undecided vote was part of the system, too. 

And another underlying but very important factor was using the quota method versus a new method we were about to work into called modified probability sampling. Now, the quota method works for virtually all elections, except the problem is you're dealing with only five variables, or determinates of voting behavior, or thinking, and so forth. And there are, of course, other factors. Well, a modified probability sample allows any range of factors to be involved, because you're operating on a chance or random selection, taking every nth person. No judgment enters into it, no subjectivity. 

With a quota sample you're saying, go out and get X percent of farmers, to our interviewers and so forth. There's a lot of judgment in there, a lot of subjectivism, really. So after the 1948 election we shifted to modified probability sampling. We were going to anyway, and I don't think the quota sample hurt us in that election much. But, what happens is you miss variables, and in 1960 when Kennedy was running against Nixon, and Kennedy being a Roman Catholic, we didn't have religion as a factor, so we didn't have maybe the right percentage of Catholics or Protestants, and that could have thrown us way off. That's a case in point. 

QUESTION: How did the 1948 election results [in favor of Truman instead of Dewey] influence your father? 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: The results of that election did not really shake my father. I mean, he was obviously puzzled, and said immediately after the election, I don't know what happened, but you can be darn sure we're going to find out what happened right away what happened, and they did. But, he is so resilient, my father, that he felt, one, he was confident he could find what went wrong, and beyond that he was not going to let it bring him down. He had other things he could do. And he had such a great curiosity that polling wasn't the only idea that he'd helped develop, actually. I mean, he was a man of ideas. So he knew that through his own creativity he could express himself in other areas, in other fields. 

The 1948 election result was actually a body blow to the image of polling in this country. And for years afterward people would say, what happened in 1948, and my dad once joked that on his tombstone there will be the numbers 1948. So we patiently explained the factors involved in that, actually, and slowly polling came back and I think improved its image. Elections are really the acid test of a poll's methodology. 

QUESTION: What about the enduring value of polling? 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: My dad was really a fervent promoter of public opinion polling in the United States and around the world, because in many respects he was a populist, he believed in the average person, he believed in the tremendous potential of the average person. And that was sort of instinctive with him. And so he felt that polls, in effect, were representing everybody, whether or not they vote or not, and it's giving everybody a voice, and that resonated with his inner being, if you will. 

Polls today continue, I believe, to reflect values in the populace, democratic values really and I think have helped guide leaders and the populace, too, to see what problems are upper most, and what solutions are available, and what's the strength of manpower and woman power to deal with these particular problems. So it continues to serve. But, sometimes polls are misused, sometimes a politician will, regardless of his own conscience, just go where the votes are. And that does happen, of course. My dad always maintained that leaders should lead and not follow public opinion, although at the same time they should know where the people are. 

QUESTION: What are some of the criticisms of polling? 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: One of the big criticisms, of course, was does this subvert leadership, do polls subvert leadership? And his answer was always, absolutely not, because here leaders have the benefit of surveys on every imaginable topic, reflecting the views of every group in the populace. So just as a general needs this kind of information for his intelligence to make his strategies, leaders have that kind of information. But, he always felt that it would be sad if a leader just went with every whim of public opinion. If a leader doesn't agree with the public, it's up to the leader to reeducate the public, that is his purpose. 

Another of the frequent criticisms is that polls create a bandwagon effect, that people will jump on the winning side as polls show that candidate or party leading. Well, we like to refute that argument by pointing to 1948, when all the pollsters, including Gallup, were saying that Dewey would win. There may be some effect at a local level, but the fact of the matter is that by the time of the election, the national election, the candidates are well enough known that it's not a question of distorting the race by showing one candidate polling up to the other. There are many other factors that will be involved in the person's choosing their candidate, actually, and it's not necessarily to be on the winner's side. I mean, there are economic factors, which party will keep them out of war, and so forth. Those completely overpower the desire to be on the winning side. 

There's also been the charge that polls keep people from going to the polls, actually voting, or that early projections from the East will lower the voting turnout in the far West. And the studies I've seen refute that, really, that people will go to the polls in just the numbers expected, regardless of what happens in the East. But, it is a public relations problem, I think, for the networks, for the projections, because people believe that, so at least that ought to be dealt with. 

Sampling can reflect the views of the entire populace within a margin of error of a few percentage points. But, there are certain groups that are left out, out of the sample, and they would be very small in number, maybe 1, 2, 3, or 4 percent at the most. But, they would be transients, people that are just fleeing from the law, or just transients, the homeless and so forth. It's very difficult to get those persons, of course. You know, our sample does not actually include people in prisons, nor in hospitals, nor on military bases. 

Polls can also be used to manipulate public opinion. In fact, we give probably most attention in the survey process to the wording of the questions. Just a change in a word or two can affect an outcome. We must be sure that the question we write doesn't insult people with the most education, but is understood by the people with the least education, gives both sides fairly and so forth, and we have to test every question on a small group, pilot study, if you will, to see if there are any problems with a given question. But, there are many examples, unfortunately, of perhaps a politician loading a question so he gets the answer that he or she wants, and then they build their case around that. 

There's always a danger, because polls are so well read today that they could distort public opinion. So therefore we belong to certain groups, the National Council of Public Polls, and AAPOR, the American Association of Public Opinion Research, which has a watchdog group, if you will. These are sort of watchdog groups of, I guess, the leading practitioners of polling in this country. And so we check each other out to be sure the polls are used the way they should be, and the wording is carefully done and so forth. So that's a safety hatch, if you will. 

QUESTION: What do you think your father would think about polling today, if he were here to see them? 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: If my dad were here today I think he'd be very proud of the way public opinion polling has taken hold in the thinking of people in all different spheres, certainly business, and that's been so for many, many years, newspapers certainly buy into polls, if you will, a lot. He'd be pleased with the way it's spread around the world, and helped people understand each other better. I think one of the areas - he would have been disappointed in a couple of areas. 

One is that in the area of the mechanics of polling, the sophistication of polling and so forth, there haven't been many changes, in his view, that it sort of stopped at that point. Maybe some would challenge that, but when he said this a few years ago prior to his death that's what he felt. It's interesting that there was a lot of advancement in the science of polling and then it sort of stopped, in the 1950s. But, in a sense that's understandable, because the question was you can't really go beyond a certain point of developing a sample, the accuracy of a sample. But, I think he meant in new ways of question design, new ways of the application of polls, I think he felt that, too. 

I think another area that would have disappointed him is that younger people don't know much about polling really. They're trained in so many other ways, they can be computer whizzes, but they don't really know much about the science of polling. And I think that would have really disappointed him to realize that it hasn't become more pervasive, the understanding of polls, nationwide. And that takes the form of younger people not understanding polls and what's behind them, but also not having the knowledge of how they might apply polls in the future, because I think his feeling was that polling is a way of thinking, really, as well as a method of application. To find out how people think it helps people make decisions, of course, and that polling can be applied in many different ways. It can be used in schools, small numbers really, you only need deal with a hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred people, you don't need to have thousands and thousands. 

So I think he would still say that polling is in its infancy, that its development will increase greatly around the world, on a local level, there will be new applications, there will be greater efforts to explore the inner life, which could be regarded as the new frontier of survey research. It could be used as a way to prevent wars, used in the area of health more, they can be used as a clearinghouse for societal ideas from around the world. So I think he would feel that we're still in the infancy, that there's a lot more that can be done with the application of the polling technique. 

QUESTION: What is your own view of polling's value? 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: I believe that polling has made a huge contribution to this country, because it's removed power out of the hands of special interest groups, it's given people who wouldn't normally have a voice a voice, not only on issues, but also in terms of products and services, really. It's enabled people in the area of religion, for example, to see whether they're integrating their faith into their lives and their actions. You can look at every sphere of the public and see that they're better off because they know where people are, and they knew the challenge ahead, in terms of educating people, of giving them new knowledge, and so forth. So I see it as overwhelmingly positive, the impact of surveys. I think what would dramatize this is if you imagined not having a way of telling what people think, and just having to rely on fiery editorials, and the handful people around you, how distorted all this could be. 

QUESTION: Talk about your father's sense of integrity in relation to political and opinion polling. 

GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: Well, he was a man of ideas, certainly, and a man of ideals, as well. He really actively tried to have new ideas constantly, and he felt that everybody could do this. He would never have called himself a genius, but I would call him a true intellectual, because he would not necessarily follow the party line, he read independently and widely, he spent time reflecting, thinking by himself. He was always au currant with the news, I mean, he not only knew the news, he had also thought about a lot behind the news. And this is part of his training, of course, through polling, where we tried to be on the cusp of new ideas, and try to get inside the issues, and so forth. But, he was a master at that. He had wide interests, and was very creative. I mean, there were very many different ideas that he developed, and he once said that he tried to have a new idea every day, actually. 

He was a very generous, kind person, he was without pretension, he would be ready to give credit to other people, that's something you don't see a lot sometimes in the business world, and bone deep honesty was certainly part of his make up, really. It would never occur to him to cheat, or lie, or distort. He was a very resilient man, he had a strong sense of duty, even in the face of illness and fatigue. He loved his family. He was, I guess, a farmer at heart, he really loved to be on a farm, loved farming, loved animals, farm animals and so forth. He was an extraordinary guy in many different ways. My dad would take no hard political line. And he wasn't prone to get swept away by enthusiasm for a new leader, and so forth. He was very careful and calculating, actually, in his judgment and so forth. He really was an independent thinker. He really didn't go down a predictable line. 

Well, my dad always saw the tremendous potential for democracy of polling around the world. And with the outbreak of freedom around the world polling has played a very important role in all of this. So it was his dream that everybody around the world should be heard. And, in fact, through surveys and sampling this is now a possibility.


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