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Taking America’s Temperature
OVER THE PAST HALF-CENTURY, POLLING HAS REMADE THE ELECTORAL PROCESS. IS IT HELPING DO THE WORK OF DEMOCRACY MORE EFFECTIVELY—OR ERODING IT?
November 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 7
But in the 1920s a more far-reaching revolution in the very concept of “public opinion” exploded. The successful propaganda drives of the world war, the newborn crafts of public relations and advertising, and the spreading gospel of Freud, which emphasized the role of hidden impulses in the human mind, combined to push rationality into a corner. Public opinion was no longer seen as the sum of reasoned judgments made by thinking men and women but as a mass of unconscious prejudices and attitudes capable of manipulation by hucksters. In a landmark 1922 book simply titled Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann announced: “In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world, we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that … in the form stereotyped for us.” The person of average information could not deal with the complexity of modern times unless disinterested experts explained. Only then could democracy work intelligently.
The stage was set for a new kind of political pulse taking by practitioners of applied social science, who would weigh and measure and analyze like zoologists investigating some newly discovered creature. In 1935 the Fortune Survey was created by Elmo Roper and Paul Cherington. Originally financed by Henry Luce’s business magazine to track economic trends, it was followed within a few years by other polling outlets. George Gallup established his American Institute of Public Opinion, Hadley Cantril the Office of Public Opinion Research housed at Princeton. A Survey Research Center settled in near the University of Michigan, and the National Opinion Research Center was created in Denver. (Later, NORC moved to the University of Chicago, where I met one of its faculty who proposed that the organization’s slogan should be: “When we want your opinion, we’ll ask for it.”)
Amid this modernization process, the Literary Digest’s 1936 poll showing Roosevelt going down to defeat stood out as Stone Age practice. The Digest relied on general postcard mailings to addresses selected from sources like the telephone directory and ignored potential biases in its lists. The newer mode was to sample and refine. Though the Digest ’s system had worked several times before, Gallup foresaw its devastating margin of error. (The magazine went out of business the following year.) But he and other pollsters failed to get the 1948 election right, partly because they had stopped surveying shortly before Election Day, failing to catch last-minute Shifts as undecided voters and silent Democrats came out of hiding. It was an error they would not repeat.
While scientific opinion-researchers honed their skills, the technological transformation of politics rolled on. Television’s power to make, enhance, or change images was confirmed as early as 1952, when Eisenhower taped dozens of homey “spots” produced by the advertising executive Rosser Reeves, in which Ike and Mamie, like average householders, shook dismayed heads over the price of groceries, and when Nixon snatched victory from the jaws of desperation in the Checkers speech. Then came steps that perfected what author Joe McGinnis in a 1968 book called the “selling of the President”—electronic data banks, airborne tours, staged interviews, “photo ops,” and the race to produce a daily sound bite for the evening news. It all was choreographed by paid consultants, and all of it was inexorably poll-driven. A sharp-edged 1964 comment on the new system came from the political scientist and sometime novelist Eugene Burdick. The old “cigar chewing, pot-bellied” bosses were obsolete, he observed, being replaced by a “benign underworld … of innocent and well-intentioned people who work with … calculating machines and computers.” Burdick echoed Eippmann’s progressive elitism when he said that these “technicians and artists” knew that the average voter “has neither the interest nor the information to make a rational decision between the two major presidential candidates” but would respond to “words and slogans which have been carefully researched to make sure they have the desired effect.” Candidates would be tempted into “slavish adherence” to the advice of their invisible staffs of survey experts and would not say “what they believe [but] what they know the people want to hear.… The new techniques could make a science out of this hypocrisy.” Burdick openmindedly concluded: “This may or may not result in evil. Certainly it will result in the end of politics as Americans have known it in the past.”
Whether Burdick’s judgment was correct or not is meat for controversy. There seems little question that poll results were used to hammer out the winning formulas in the last eight election marathons. One has only to recall “the new Nixon,” “the man from Plains,” “morning in America,” and the “bridge to the twenty-first century” and to take a close look at popular biographies of Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. But it’s hard to prove, since the candidates must deny that they are shifting positions in response to opinion surveys even as they do so, just as they once had to pretend not to be seeking the office even when running full tilt. The more things change …