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Politics and Economy:
Margin of Error? History of Public Opinion Polling
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As much as politicians, academics and marketers rely on polls to make important decisions, the "margin of error" is sometimes very great. There have been some notable examples of where polls have failed to come even close to telling true story of public opinion.

Polling Faux Pas

  • President Alf Landon?Before professional practitioners like Gallup and Roper began to lend legitimacy to the business, newspapers and magazines were the main pollsters. By 1936, the LITERARY DIGEST had built up a good track record of predicting elections. However, that year they relied on ballots sent to telephone subscribers and car owners. They evaluated over 2 million ballots, and predicted Republican Alf Landon would win by over 20% of the vote. Their predictions proved vastly inaccurate. With the Depression still in force, car owners didn't represent the mass of the voting populace — FDR did — illustrating the importance of random sampling.

  • Winnie Wins the War ... but loses the election. In 1945 the only polling organization in operation in England was Gallup. They polled the public and predicted a resounding victory for the Labour Party in the upcoming election. However, no-one "in the know" could imagine the hero of Britain, Winston Churchill, the leader of the Conservative Party, losing his place in power. Labour won even bigger than Gallup predicted. In this case, the poll was right, but the papers and politicians were wrong.

  • Truman Defeats Dewey It is one of the most famous newspaper headlines in American history. The CHICAGO TRIBUNE proclaimed the winner in the 1948 election and was wrong. Historians blame the mistake on slow returns, print deadlines, an inexperienced staff....But the opinion polls bandied about in the days leading up to the election and exit polls greatly influenced the editor's decision to run the headline.

  • The 2000 Election EmbarrassmentThe wisdom of relying on exit polls was amply demonstrated by the network news during the evening hours of Election Day. However, the National Council on Public Polls cites an ongoing problem during that election cycle. Specifically, they chastise Tim Russert for reporting the results of an NBC News/WALL STREET JOURNAL poll before it was even completed. (For more on questions to ask when viewing poll results see: Poll Need to Knows

    Sources: See below.

  • It's all in the way you ask the question. Pollsters (and academics, journalists and others) have long known that the framing of the question often predicates its answer. By looking at poll questions from years past you can get a sense of what the American public was thinking, and what politicians wanted them to think about.

    Polls of the Past

  • 1939: Which of these do you think is the main thing holding back greater prosperity in this country?
    • The New Deal
    • The leaders of business
    • Labor
    • Events abroad over which we have no control
    • Don't know
    This question, from the Roper Poll for FORTUNE magazine in 1939, gives a compact view of the main forces in American society, and the growing fear of War.

  • 1943: During World War II, the War Department conducted many surveys of soldiers. The questions they asked make for an interesting insight into those running and fighting in the war:

    In general, how well do you think the army is run?

    1. It is run very well
    2. It is run pretty well
    3. It is not run so well
    4. It is run very poorly
    5. Undecided
    6. No answer
    The vast majority responded #1.

    What kind of work is needed to win the war? What kind of work would you prefer to do?

    1. I would rather be a soldier
    2. I would rather be a civilian doing some kind of work needed to win the war
    3. Undecided

    Most of those surveyed answered #2.

    Different people have different ideas about what the United States is fighting for in this war. What is your own personal opinion?

    This question was not coded.


  • 1949: As things look now, do you think that within the next two years, at least a moderate depression with considerably more unemployment than we have now is likely or unlikely?

    The pollsters provided explicit instructions for the staff: "Read this question slowly and carefully to give the respondent a good chance to understand it all. Obviously, what we are trying to describe is a depression that may be less severe than that of the early 1930s, but still one severe enough to cause a good deal of unemployment."

    From: Roper FORTUNE #75, Security/Insecurity: Optimism/Pessimism about Country and the Individual, February 28, 1949

  • 2000: Although it would be inaccurate to draw grand conclusions from the subject of one poll, it's interesting to note that among the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research's files is the Law and the Media Survey. The subject matter is not exactly what you'd imagine — no views on journalistic ethics, media influence and law enforcement. Instead it's the intersection of two great 21st-century American obsessions, TV and crime.

    Question: Some shows on TV feature police officers and prosecutors such as NYPD BLUE and LAW AND ORDER. How often do you watch shows like these....?

    LAW AND THE MEDIA SURVEY, Center for Survey Research & Analysis, February 17-March 7, 2000.

    Take some of NOW's polls.

    Sources: National Council on Public Polls; The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research; The Gallup Organization; Columbia University Library Reference; "Researching political markets: market-oriented or populistic?," INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF MARKET RESEARCH, June 22, 2000; "A nation of liars? Opinion polls and the 1992 election," JOURNAL OF THE MARKET RESEARCH SOCIETY, October, 1993; THE WIZARD OF WASHINGTON: EMIL HURJA, FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT, AND THE BIRTH OF PUBLIC OPINION POLLING, 2002.

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