|The smart money said Franklin D. Roosevelt couldn't win another term as president in 1936. Too controversial, too free-spending, too helpless to stop the Great Depression.
America's most esteemed public-opinion poll was in The Literary Digest, and it said Roosevelt would lose, 56 percent to 44 percent. For many, that was convincing enough, since the Digest had correctly called each of the last five elections, often right down to the percentage point.
Yet here was a bluff, brash Princeton-based pollster named George Gallup, who had been in business only since 1935 -- and he was predicting FDR in a walk.
Gallup called his polling company the American Institute of Public Opinion and billed the Gallup Poll as a reliable index of the voters' mood. Much of the political establishment just laughed at him. After all, his "Institute" was just a tiny office above the Woolworth's on Nassau Street.
Gallup, though, had the last laugh.
On Election Day, Roosevelt's Republican opponent, Al Landon, won a total of two states. FDR swept the rest of the nation for the greatest landslide in presidential history.
The election of '36 propelled the Gallup Poll into prominence that would see it become a vital force in political culture. For the next 60 years, it remained the most popular newspaper poll in the world. No election, no policy debate was complete without its percentages.
Winston Churchill would complain: "Nothing is more dangerous than to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup Poll, always taking one's temperature."
But to Gallup, polling was useful precisely because it did read democracy's temperature.
George Horace Gallup Jr. was born Nov. 18, 1901, in the heartland of America -- a small town called Jefferson, Iowa.
From a young age, he was instilled with a sense of democracy based on the sturdy, self-sufficient farmer. When he was 9, in fact, his father entrusted him with a herd of dairy cows to earn his own spending money. Later, young George worked his way through the University of Iowa.
As editor of the student newspaper, Gallup loved to stir things up -- even in the quiescent '20s. "Doubt everything," he wrote in one editorial. "Question everything. Be a radical!"
Gallup earned a Ph.D in journalism, which he promptly put to work in the most practical way by doing surveys of the Des Moines newspaper market. Editors assumed that their readers read all the front-page stories. Gallup found out the readers rarely did -- preferring comics, pictures and bright features.
His work got him noticed by Young and Rubicam, the big New York ad agency, and in 1933, Gallup headed east to take over their market-research department. For a home, he picked a rambling white farmhouse off Great Road in Blawenburg, N.J., complete with working dairy farm.
At the family dinner table with his wife, Ophelia, and their three children, Gallup engaged in provocative, mind-stretching conversation.
"We were like guinea pigs for his ideas about polling," said his son, George Gallup III. "He'd poll us. Do you like dogs or cats better? What kind of cereal?"
The dinner-table talk, together with his long commutes to Manhattan, gave the elder Gallup time to think. One of his thoughts: If market research works to sell toothpaste, why not politics?
And so, in September 1935, the Gallup Poll was born.
The ad man had always been a journalist at heart, and he thought of his political poll as a dynamite newspaper item. After he set up the headquarters of the Institute of Public Opinion at 114 Nassau St., he enlisted more than 20 papers across the country to buy his poll results as a syndicated feature.
The poll, first published Oct. 20, had a grand title: "America Speaks." Its first question, in these pits of the Great Depression, was: "Do you think expenditures by the government for relief or recovery are too little, too great or just about right?" Sixty percent said "too great."
Gallup made a big splash, but most pundits were looking to the Literary Digest to provide the insight into the election of '36.
The Literary Digest method was simple: to print up survey blanks and mail them to millions of households across the country. You simply had to fill in your choice for president, Landon or Roosevelt, and mail it back to the Digest.
By contrast, Gallup would conduct biweekly polls of a sample of perhaps 2,000 people -- each one chosen, in the time-tested manner of market research, to represent a larger group, including all classes, races and regions.
And instead of relying on mail-in ballots, Gallup would send pollsters to talk to people in person -- at work, on home or on the street.
In July 1936, before the returns were even published, Gallup went out on a limb. He wrote a newspaper piece saying the Digest survey would predict Landon, and that the survey would be wrong.
Gallup was right, of course.
But how could the Digest be so wrong, when it was polling millions, and Gallup right with only a few thousand? Simple.
The Digest had chosen people to question based on phone numbers and car registries. But in that Depression year, millions of voters had no phones or cars. The Digest poll completely missed the great appeal Roosevelt had for the masses -- but Gallup had gone out of his way to talk to them.
By bringing out the voice of the "average voter," Gallup never wavered in believing he was serving the Republic.
"When a president, or any other leader, pays attention to poll results, he is, in effect, paying attention to the views of the people," Gallup said.
And what about the argument that the polls themselves sway public events? "One might as well insist that a thermometer makes the weather."
Gallup did not invent the political poll, but he turned it into a mighty force in America. The questions he posed in 1935, phrased carefully so as not to bias the result, are still standards today:
"What is the most important problem facing the country?"
"Do you approve of the job that [fill in name] is doing as president?"
"If the election were held today, whom would you vote for?"
Gallup was too inquisitive to just write about politics, though. As early as 1936, he was asking people if a woman should have a career if her husband has enough money to support her. Only 18 percent said yes.
Public-opinion polling has actually been a money-loser for Gallup throughout its history. George Gallup made his money -- millions of it -- from corporate clients by researching the effectiveness of ad campaigns and finding out who watches certain TV shows. But it was the polls that made him famous, and controversial.
In 1948, Gallup blew it. His surveys consistently showed President Harry S. Truman behind challenger Thomas Dewey, so Gallup announced the result was a foregone conclusion and stopped polling two weeks before the election.
Truman won. The day after the election, the president laughingly waved a Chicago Tribune headline that mistakenly said "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN" -- taunting all the wise guys who thought he would lose.
Glum after his '48 debacle, Gallup announced: "We are continually experimenting and continually learning." Lesson No. 1 was to keep polling, right up to Election Day, and the Gallup Poll has never gotten a presidential election wrong since.
Into his 70s, Gallup served as a master salesman not just for his poll but for polling as an institution. Yet he never voted in a presidential election since founding his Institute, by now renamed the Gallup Organization.
If he told everyone whom he voted for, Gallup explained, that would be seen as a way to influence the election's outcome. But if he refused to say for whom he voted, "How could I ask anyone else such a question?" Safer to just not vote.
In 1984, George Gallup died of a heart attack while staying in his summer home in Switzerland, but the Gallup Poll stayed alive with sons Alec and George Gallup III in charge.
The younger Gallups, over the last decade, steered the firm through a series of changes.
Recognizing that almost all Americans, rich or poor, now have telephones, they dropped "man-on-the-street" polling and conducted all questioning by phone. Gallup also moved to a new office on Hulfish Lane in Palmer Square. In January 1999, Gallup opened a TV studio in its office building, which it uses to beam live broadcasts on the latest polls to CNN.
The Gallup Organization has also spawned a separate group, the Gallup International Institute, to do polling research about America's moral and spiritual values.
The institute's work will end up becoming an asset to religion, insists its president, George Gallup III -- by "reaching into people's hearts, their minds, their souls."
Religion through polling?
George Gallup the elder didn't think it was impossible. "I could prove God statistically," he once said. "Take the human body alone -- the chance that all the functions of the individual would just happen is a statistical monstrosity!"
|1935: The poll that took America's pulse
|Gallup and his poll staff at their Princeton office after the 1948 election.
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian