It’s hard times out there for a political junkie. Oh, the high was so good there for a while. We had two weeks mainlining all of the grandiose speechifying and the pans of all the delegates’ silly hats at the conventions. The rush of the rhetoric and analyses and thrill of competition has been head-spinning. Now we’ve come down and are counting the days until our source (i.e., the Commission on Presidential Debates) comes through with our score. Until then we might have the occasional crisis to perk things up, to hold us over, but mostly it’s stump speeches and sound bites, except for…the polls.
If you’re like me, every morning you wake and wonk: without even getting out of bed you grope for your smartphone and blearily sift through the day’s Nate Silver entry to see if there has been the slightest wobble in FiveThirtyEight’s Now Cast. Maybe you’re more into games of chance and prefer to burn the midnight oil by cycling through every possible electoral vote outcome on 270towin.com. Or, are you perhaps part of the truly creative few who writes fan fiction about your favorite pollsters at Ipsos or PPP or Rasmussen. Any way you cope, the polls are the fix you need, electoral methadone until debate season comes.
But how did people get through, how did the political junkie keep on keepin’ on in the days before polls. Poll pioneer times were tough. And though polling goes back almost to the beginning of presidential politics itself, it was nowhere near the potency and ready availability that we find today.
Consensus among historians holds that the first such poll was conducted by the Harrisburg Pennsylvanian in 1824. “Whoa maaaan,” you say, “Pennsylvania was a swing state even back then? Damn!” No, I’m saying nothing about the historical swinginess of the Keystone State. In truth, this poll, done by a newspaper in Pennsylvania’s capital, was actually conducted in Delaware. The Pennsylvanian conducted a straw poll among Wilmingtonians about their preference for president. I guess that’s where the opinions were.
As it turned out, the paper picked a particularly prickly election to inaugurate the Age of Polling. James Monroe was in the White House, but he was a lame duck, finishing up his second term so there was no incumbent. The Federalist Party was a thing of the past, leaving four viable Democratic-Republican candidates, each with his own regional support. In the poll, war hero Andrew Jackson dominated with 70%, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams got 23%, and Henry Clay and William Crawford brought up the rear.
As it turned out the poll was right, sort of. Jackson took 41.3% of the vote to Adams’ 30.9%. Jackson did not, however, have the requisite 131 electoral votes to win the contest. The election went to the House where Adams’ experience, pedigree, and alleged “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay carried the day…at least until 1828, when Jackson crushed Adams 178 electoral votes to 83. For the record, the single rep from Delaware voted for Crawford.
Straw polls, though decently predictive, are not particularly scientific. There is no representative sampling, whoever answers answers and that’s it. Still, polls gained traction as part of the election process from there, but there was little in the way of innovation for the rest of 19th century. Some historians cite the Columbus Despatch [sic?] as having hired trained interviewers and corrected for age and occupation. For the most part, though bigger is better was the primary improvement. The New York Herald had pushed sample sizes to 30,000 in 1904, but that was just a drop in the bucket.
The Literary Digest was founded by the superlatively named Isaac Kaufman Funk in 1890. As a weekly news magazine it became one of the most popular periodicals in the country. Beginning in 1916, the Digest sent out questionnaires to gauge people’s preferences in presidential elections. By 1932 they had racked up a five election winning streak, nailing the outcome of every one, had expanded to opinion polling on topics such as prohibition (20.66% supported repeal in 1922, 73.51% in 1932), and were the force in American polling. Then 1936 happened.
Consider for a moment that polls reported by the media today generally have about 1000 respondents. In 1936, the Literary Digest mailed out 10 million questionnaires and got a ludicrous 2,350,176 responses. That’s about 5% of the number of people who would end up voting. They were pretty confident:
“Next week, the first answers from these ten million will begin the incoming tide of marked ballots, to be triple-checked, verified, five-times cross-classified and totaled. When the last figure has been totted and checked, if past experience is a criterion, the country will know to within a fraction of 1 percent the actual popular vote of forty million [voters].”
Their prediction: Alfred Landon would take 57% of the popular vote and 370 electoral votes over Great Depression-addled Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In actuality, FDR won the electoral vote 523-8, with over 11 million more votes than Landon. So, that went well.
In truth, this monumental miscalculation heralded the modern age of polling. The Literary Digest fell prey to massive selection and nonresponse biases. Their mailing lists came from club membership rolls and telephone directories, both of which were indicators of great luxury in a time of 16+% unemployment. But the Digest had scored big for 20 years on large samples, so it never occurred to them to consider the finer points of who might actually be filling that sample. It did occur, however, to statistics Ph.D. and Columbia University professor George Gallup.
Gallup had started his business career as an advertising researcher and quickly moved to form his own opinion polling company. He targeted not only the biases within the sampling, but also in the questioning. He arrived at the now-ubiquitous formula that pollsters use to keep from tainting their results – “If the election were held today, whom would you vote for?” And, we must point out, he was just as cocky as the Literary Digest when it came to his results. More so actually, because he was a smack talker. Keenly aware of their methodological shortcomings, before the results were even in Gallup predicted that the Digest poll would pick Landon and that they’d be wrong. Gallup was right, if not dead on. As such, his company became an opinion taking juggernaut and polling as an almost-science was born.
OK. He wasn’t perfect. The famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” debacle? That was partly driven by Gallup’s predictions. He admitted that he stopped polling too early. By then Truman was gaining on Dewey and in the waning days of the campaign Truman was buoyed by a slickly produced campaign film that Dewey’s campaign produced, but backfired by making him look aloof and out-of touch. But that was a long time George, and we forgive you, because you got what we need to scratch that political junkie’s itch.