The Political Scientist Who Warned Us About PollsRoundup
tags: politics, public opinion, presidential elections, polling
David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers, is a contributing editor at Politico Magazine. He is the author of several works of political history including, most recently, Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.
Every era enshrines its prophets. Politics today has whiz kids like Nate Silver, Nate Cohn, Harry Enten and Dave Wasserman, who have achieved varying degrees of cultural celebrity by telling us what to expect come Election Day — even when, as happened once again this week, their vision proves cloudy (or worse). In 1948 there was no greater prophet than George Gallup, whose face graced the cover of Time magazine in May of that year. The accompanying profile called him “the Babe Ruth of the polling profession.”
Gallup’s name had by then become synonymous with a wide-ranging new effort by survey-takers and statisticians who were striving to know, with scientific precision, the very nature of American mind, including which presidents the public meant to elect. Gallup had rocketed to fame in 1936 by confidently declaring that the Literary Digest — at the time the gold standard of polls, which was forecasting FDR’s defeat in the fall election — would be wrong. FDR won in a landslide, in what turned out to be (on Literary Digest’s part) a historic polling fail.
Though hailed for his clairvoyance in 1936, Gallup eventually found himself, too, attacked for arrogance and short-sightedness. Like the other big-name pollsters of the day, Elmo Roper and Archibald Crossley, Gallup predicted in 1948 that New York Attorney General Tom Dewey would rout President Harry Truman in the fall election. Although Gallup’s data had detected Truman making gains toward the end of the campaign, he had never placed Truman within five points of his Republican rival. Elmo Roper did even worse; his final survey for Fortune magazine, in October, said Dewey would take 44 percent of the vote, Truman 31 percent. “So decisive are the figures given here this month,” the editors wrote, “that Fortune, and Mr. Roper, plan no further detailed reports on the change of opinion in the forthcoming presidential campaign.” Other journalists also took the pollsters’ word for it. Newsweek asked 50 political writers who would win. All said Dewey. The New York Times predicted that Dewey would win with 345 electoral votes. Life put Dewey on its next cover, before Election Day was over.
But, of course, it was Truman who defeated Dewey, not the other way around. It was a polling failure worthy of 2016 or 2020. (To give a sense of the misfire this year: Going into Election Day, 538 put Biden’s Florida lead at 2.5 percent while Real Clear Politics put it at .9 percent; Trump is now ahead there by 3.4 percent with 96 percent of votes counted — an error of between 4.3 and 5.9 percent). And just as those who prognosticated a Biden romp this week are looking egg-faced, so journalists who hitched their reportage to Gallup’s data came in for jeers. Some cheered the pundits’ and the pollsters’ comeuppance. In the New Republic, Richard Strout, writing under his usual pseudonym “T.R.B.,” celebrated “a glowing and wonderful sense that the American people couldn’t be ticketed by polls [and] knew its own mind.”
No one relished this epic fail more than the distinguished Columbia University political scientist Lindsay Rogers. For years, Rogers had been thundering about the unreliability of polling and — more importantly —the groundless faith that people placed in it. In an exquisite bit of timing, Rogers published a book in 1949 entitled The Pollsters. (The coinage, wags noted, evoked the term hucksters, though Rogers denied any intentional allusion.) Rogers’ polemic was a rebuttal, of sort, to a book that Gallup himself had published a few years earlier, called The Pulse of Democracy.
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