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Politics and Economy:
Margin of Error?
More on This Story:
History of Opinion Polling
Page 2

Public Opinion and Polling History

The popularity of rulers has not always been determined by polls or votes — as any reader of history knows — Marie Antionette, Tsar Nicholas II, King George III. But leaders fighting foreign and civil wars have long known the value of good will.

  • Beginnings: Ironically, it was the French Minister of Finance in the years just before the French Revolution who first pointed out the importance of l'opinion publique. Jacques Neckar was concerned with what we now call "investor confidence" and he advocated for the publishing of government accounts and policies.

  • The Declaration of Independence: The very language of the Declaration of Independence requires that public opinion be taken into account. Our government functions expressly with "the consent of the governed."

  • Abraham Lincoln Said: "What I want to get done is what the people desire to have done, and the question for me is how to find that out exactly."

    Lincoln, certainly a President with a less than unanimous approval rating, stated outright his belief in the public mandate. In his case, he used the notion of the will of the people to fight a war.

  • Straw Polls: Newspapers often augmented their election coverage by interviewing voters as they left the polling place. These impromptu interviews were called "straw polls," and the first one recorded in the U.S. took place in 1824. By the turn of the century they were common in both local and national newspapers and magazines.

  • Gallup: During the early years of the 20th century the rise of the social sciences in education and government brought sociology and statistics into the public consciousness. Market research firms were born — designed to help manufacturers make and market products of mass appeal.

    Among the first of the practitioners of scientific polling, George Gallup founded the American Institute of Public Opinion in 1936. He quickly began to apply polling techniques to fields far beyond marketing. Soon after, The Roper and Crossley Poll (FORTUNE Poll) and Harris Poll were also up and running. The National Opinion Research Center was founded in 1941, the first non-commercial polling agency.

  • FDR's Secret Weapon: Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first American President to use a private polling service to advise him on both election strategy and public policy. Roosevelt relied on Emil Hurja of the Democratic National Committee and Princeton professor Hadley Cantrill. FDR's tenure in office was marked by great policy change AND his own great popularity.

  • We DO Like Ike: "We Like Ike" was the campaign slogan that former General Eisenhower took into battle in the 1952 campaign. He also used the polling information provided by Louis Harris (Harris Poll) designed to gauge how to make the candidate appeal to the voting public.

  • JFK and Beyond: John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign relied heavily on public opinion polls, and every candidate since has had pollsters as an integral part of his campaign team. Dr. Richard Wirthlin became the first semi-official pollster when he joined President Reagan's White House staff as an advisor. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush relied heavily on pollsters in an outside the White House.

  • Organizations of note: In 1947 the American Association for Public Opinion Research was founded. THE PUBLIC OPINION QUARTERLY, begun by Princeton University in 1937, is its journal. The National Council on Public Polls monitors the business of polling.

    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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