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Taking America’s Temperature

June 2024
9min read


A polltaker’s lot is perhaps least enviable when his profession is dealt with by historians of presidential elections. Almost all of them give prominent play to polling’s two most celebrated disasters: 1936, when a respected national magazine’s straw poll forecast a loss for Franklin D. Roosevelt, and 1948, when Harry Truman confounded almost universal predictions of defeat and overcame Thomas E. Dewey. These sensational landmarks obscure the fact that in the 14 other elections between 1936 and 1996 no such major mistakes were made. Where is the respect for a batting average of .875? It’s as if every book about modern ships and their builders featured a frontispiece of the Titanic going down.

Besides, as public opinion researchers —their preferred term—would be quick to note, those experimental days of 50 and 60 years ago were the dinosaur era of scientific opinion surveys. Target populations are now meticulously sliced and diced into such categories as race, ethnicity, age, income, gender, residence, employment, and education. Precisely focused questions are asked of sample groups that are as nearly as possible a cross section of society, and the answers are endlessly reshuffled by computers for the examination of statisticians. Institutes on university campuses use the results not merely to forecast elections but to track changes in America’s demography, economy, and culture, and their analyses appear in academic quarterlies.

Operating alongside these flagships of social science research are polling teams more pragmatically focused. The major news organizations have their own surveys that provide a continuous flow of “reaction” stories: What do people think of a candidate’s latest proposal, newest response to criticism, choice of assistants, friends? “Tracking polls” keep almost daily score on how he (or she) would fare if the election were to be held immediately. When it actually takes place, “exit polls” allow early projection of winners and losers —and spoil the traditional fun of waiting in suspense before the TV set for the late-hour outcome.

Meanwhile, polls privately commissioned by the candidates’ consultants keep tabs on the hot-button issues of a given moment, the standings in crucial districts, the responses of crucial voter groups to new developments. Almost hour by hour, at the pace of a high command studying situation maps in the middle of a battle, they use the data to plot strategy—and sometimes as weapons in themselves. Poll results that show their clients doing well are rushed into press-release form; those that do not are sequestered. Some managers even create phony polls that use loaded questions to force outcomes that will look good for their side.

The measurement of public opinion is something of a science, but it is also big business, a technique-sharing twin of the market research that drives our consumer culture. Like any powerful enterprise, it has created an army of critics and defenders. The naysayers’ bill of indictment is a long one. They charge that frequent polling trivializes the electoral process by emphasizing who’s ahead—the horserace, not the stakes. Furthermore, polls narrow democratic choice by scaring away potential financial backers from little-known candidates who falter in early predictions. Election-eve polls and election-night projections keep many voters at home, convinced that their vote is either futile or superfluous if the man or woman of their choice is far behind or unbeatably in front. (Some countries even forbid the publication of poll results immediately before the election or of projections until the last voting booth is closed. Efforts to do this in the United States run head-on into the stout resistance of the networks claiming the shelter of the First Amendment.) Moreover, issue-oriented polls encourage the platitudinous candidate to follow, rather than lead, to take his cues from “the data” and support shortsighted but temporarily popular dogmas. In the end, a bored and oversaturated public turns in disgust from the whole election process.

The polltakers see it differently. Democracy is about enacting the will of the people, they say, and democracy is the healthier for every expert revelation of what the people think and desire. Kathleen A. Frankovic, for example, the director of polling at CBS News, puts it this way: “Polls both inform and elevate the level of public discussion… . reporting public opinion polls tells readers and viewers that their opinions are important.” One might think that elections themselves do that, but she insists that “pollbashing,” as she calls it, is “an antidemocratic fix, an elitist solution … a surrender to the notion that only some people’s opinions matter.”

The effort to determine and control what we call “public opinion” hardly existed for the first half-century of in- dependence, when the domination of political discussion by a small, educated elite was taken for granted. A government responsive to popular sentiment was not at all what the framers Of the Constitution had in mind. As one of them put it at the convention, giving the choice of President to the people at large would be “as unnatural … as it would [be to] refer a trial of colors to a blind man.” The Electoral College was designed to put the Presidency an extra step away from direct voter choice and so derail any demagogue who appealed to the fickle will of the uninformed.


The election of 1828 changed all that. Andrew Jackson, frontier war hero, a rugged figure who was prosperous but self-made, self-educated and proud of it, was the people’s hero who dethroned King Caucus. By the time he stepped down, in 1837, a new kind of party system, organized from the bottom up, had been born. It depended on flattering the multitudes with extravaganzas and promises, and the first recognizably demagogic campaign was fought in 1840 when Jackson’s old enemies, by then called the Whig party, won by stealing his symbols and portrayed their man, the Virginia aristocrat William Henry Harrison—selected at a convention—as a hard-cider-drinking, dirt-common inhabitant of a log cabin and won, with high voter turnouts rarely ever surpassed. In the next 60 years the modern Republican and Democratic parties became solid institutions. Their inner circles of kingmakers handled the presidential candidates, keeping them, if possible, from blurting out any opinions whatever and encouraging only limited appearances to shake hands and radiate goodwill. (So much for the imaginary past of high-minded, issue-oriented campaigns.)

Counting as well as courting the masses became part of the game as early as 1824. Straw polls began to appear in the heavily partisan press. They were named for the practice of tossing straw in the air to find which way the wind blew, and were about as fine-tuned. In some public setting, a simple question would be put, by either a reporter or an interested party, and the results were printed with little pretense of objectivity. Thus, in 1856, the Chicago Tribune recorded the response of 24 War of 1812 veterans, who were picking up their pensions, to a question on their presidential preference from “a gentleman who was present.” They were 21-3 for the Republican, J. C. Frémont. “It seems,” concluded the editor, “that those who fought and bled for their country still remain on the side of their country.” A more detached survey was undertaken 20 years later by a Tribune reporter who simply asked people descending from an excursion train for their intentions and found Rutherford B. Hayes ahead of Samuel Tilden, 65-13. The prize for artistic detail might well go to an upstate New York Times reader who relayed the results of a straw vote taken by “an enthusiastic drummer” in a car on a southbound train on an October day in 1896. Eighteen passengers went for McKinley and five for Bryan. When Ballston was reached, the five Bryanites got off together, and “then it was seen that they were handcuffed together, and were a gang of prisoners on their way to the county jail.” By the end of the 180Os, as mass-circulation newspapers shed the need for party support, more and more independent straw votes tried to forecast outcomes.

Party leaders had reality-based quasi polls of their own to guide them. State political machines rested on county organizations whose reach extended downward into the city streets, where ward and precinct workers ate and drank with “their” voters, handed out the jobs and the favors, and collected the dues. A chairman eager to know what was on constituents’ minds could get information firsthand from his subordinates. If the election results themselves proved it unreliable, heads rolled. The party hegemony might provide a spotty kind of democracy, but democracy it was. Viscount James Bryce, Britain’s ambassador to the United States, wrote in 1891 that “America has shown more boldness in trusting public opinion, in recognizing and giving effect to it, than has yet been shown elsewhere. Towering over … the vast machinery of party, public opinion stands out, in the United States, as the great source of power. …”

Reverence for public opinion seemed at its highest when progressive America began a revolt against political bosses at the century’s turn. Presidential aspirants like William Jennings Bryan, and Presidents themselves, like Theodore Roosevelt, took to the rails to plead their cases directly to the people from the rear platforms at every hamlet and crossing. Whistle-stopping focused new attention on the candidates as humans and opened new avenues of inquiry about how voters liked their styles and personalities. Meanwhile, other innovators encouraged unmediated popular participation in government. The Constitution was amended to allow the direct election of senators, and various states adopted the primary election for choosing candidates and even introduced the initiative and referendum, which allowed propositions to be put to a general vote, by-passing the legislature altogether. It seemed the ultimate democratic triumph: straight-out “popular” rather than “representative” government.

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 …

In fact, the historian Gil Troy, in an intriguing history of candidacies titled See How They Ran: The Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate, rejects Burdick’s view of “slavish adherence” to the pollsters as a threat to democracy. On the contrary, he says that almost universal primaries and wide television exposure give the people more input and more exposure to the candidates than they have ever before enjoyed. The posturing and playacting of the White House seekers have their roots in our own uncertainty as to whether we want the President to be an aloof model of republican integrity or a commoner recognizably like us. Other commentators, too, reject the notion that we “buy” our Presidents from the slickest packagers.

But defenders of the current system can’t dodge the brutal paradox: If we are indeed more democratic than we were, why is it that fewer and fewer of us vote? Could nonstop polling be part of the reason? Winston Churchill once wrote that “nothing is more dangerous than to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup Poll, always taking one’s temperature….”

For myself, I vote “undecided.”

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