Gallup and the Scientific Opinion Poll
BEN WATTENBERG: What did Americans of the 1930s think about the government's increased role in their lives? Previously, we would not have been able to answer that question with any certainty. But the mid-1930s saw the advent of another institution that boosted liberty and has stayed with us to the present day, the public opinion poll.
In 1935, a new weekly column appeared in newspapers across the country. "America Speaks" promised to report what the public thought about the issues of the day through nationwide public opinion polls. The surveys were conducted by a Princeton, New Jersey company called the American Institute of Public Opinion recently founded by George Gallup.
The issues were wide-ranging, from manners and morals to the most profound debates about public policy. For example, was it indecent for women to wear shorts on the street in 1939? Sixty-three percent of respondents said yes. What about topless bathing suits for men? Apparently they were okay, although 33 percent still found them indecent as late as 1939. Did Americans approve of a married woman working if she had a husband capable of supporting her? No, and by a wide margin; 78 percent disapproved in the Depression year of 1938.
As for what Americans thought about the Depression and the New Deal, the poll offered some real surprises. For example, in retrospect, it's commonly thought that Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal programs were wildly popular. But the very first Gallup poll question in 1935 was this: "Do you think expenditures by the government for relief and recovery are too little, too great, or just about right?" How do you think Depression-era America answered? Too little, 9 percent; about right, 31 percent; too great, 60 percent.
But just three months later, in December of 1935, Gallup was in the field again with this question: Are you in favor of government old-age pensions for the needy? Yes, 89 percent; no, 11 percent. Americans wanted to have their cake and eat it, too. And why not? It's a pattern that continues to the present day.
Now, George Gallup did not invent the modern public opinion poll, but he is the man who legitimized it, thanks in part to a dramatic bet. In 1935, in order to get newspapers to subscribe to his weekly polls, Gallup promised he would predict the winner of the 1936 presidential election.
DAVID MOORE (Author, The Super Pollsters): He actually guaranteed the newspapers that were subscribing to his poll that if he was wrong, he would refund all their money. Now, that was a lot of polling that he had been doing that whole year, so for him to agree to refund the money if he was wrong was a real big gamble.
BEN WATTENBERG: And that was just part of the bet. Gallup also guaranteed that he would predict the percentages more accurately than the leading poll of the day, conducted by the Literary Digest magazine. It seemed a foolhardy promise. The Literary Digest poll had picked the winner in every presidential election since 1916. The Digest poll was conducted on a vast scale. A staff of several thousand workers stuffed ballots into envelopes, in some years as many as 20 million of them. The ballots were mailed to names polled from automobile registration lists and telephone directories.
GEORGE GALLUP, JR. (The Gallup Organization): As a matter of fact, they went to about a third of all households in the United States. And the assumption was that the more people you interview, of course you're going to get closer to the truth.
BEN WATTENBERG: But George Gallup knew that huge samples did not guarantee accuracy. The method he relied on was called quota sampling, a technique also used at the time by polling pioneers Archibald Crossley and Elmo Roper. The idea was to canvass groups of people who were representative of the electorate. Gallup sent out hundreds of interviewers across the country, each of whom was given quotas for different types of respondents; so many middle-class urban women, so many lower-class rural men, and so on. Gallup's team conducted some 3,000 interviews, but nowhere near the 10 million polled that year by the Digest.
DAVID MOORE: So a lot of politicians at the time said, "How can you believe George Gallup? I know the Literary Digest is polling, because I know of people who've gotten a ballot. But I never see a George Gallup interviewer."
BEN WATTENBERG: Both predicted big wins, but for different candidates. The Digest predicted Republican Alf Landon would win handsomely, with 57 percent of the vote to Roosevelt's 43 percent. Wrong, said Gallup. He forecast a win for Roosevelt with 54 percent of the vote.
When Election Day arrived, voters filed into the voting booths and re-elected Roosevelt with an overwhelming 61 percent of the vote. George Gallup won his bet. How could Gallup be right and the Digest so wrong? The Digest automobile registration list and telephone directories were not representative samples. In the 1930s, while cars and telephones were becoming more widespread, they were still disproportionately owned by the middle and upper classes. That hadn't mattered much in previous elections. The voting patterns of rich and poor were similar.
But in 1936, in the Depression, more prosperous Americans tended to vote Republican, for Landon, and less prosperous voters tended to vote Democratic, favoring Roosevelt. Since Gallup's samples more closely matched the electorate as a whole, his numbers were less affected when the vote split along class lines. It was a turning point for Gallup and for polling.
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 of -- rather, the accuracy of scientific polling versus other kinds of surveys that relied on sheer numbers or, you know, samples that weren't representative.
BEN WATTENBERG: The Literary Digest went out of business. Gallup became the leading evangelist for the new science of polling. In his 1940 book, "The Pulse of Democracy," Gallup outlined a utopian view of its potential. Polling, he said, would become the national equivalent of the New England town meeting. It would give a voice to the views of the common man.
GEORGE GALLUP, JR.: My dad thought that polls were absolutely vital to a democracy. He felt that polls were extremely important because it removed the power from lobbying groups and from smoke-filled rooms and let the public into the act. It was a way to let the public speak.
ALEC GALLUP (The Gallup Organization): I think he'd still say, if he were around, he'd say although it's being overdone now, you still have to know where the public is. And this is what a democracy is about. Without it, what do you have?
BEN WATTENBERG: Has Gallup's vision been realized? We are told politicians aren't leaders anymore; they just echo polls. But for all its flaws, public opinion polling is a great American contribution to democracy. Would you rather live in an America where politicians don't know what's on the mind of the public? Barely half of Americans vote for the president, while public opinion polls theoretically represent the views of all citizens. Polling helps give democracy a voice, which was what Gallup had in mind.
When we come back in a moment, we will see democracy itself under the gun during the greatest calamity of the century.
George Gallup and colleagues. Copyright the Gallup Organization.
Polling Gallup style. Copyright the Gallup Organization.