Today, we try to foretell how you plan to vote. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
If I say Gallup Poll, what
image flashes in your mind? You see Harry Truman,
smiling and victorious after the 1948 presidential
election. He holds a copy of the Chicago
Daily Tribune with the headline "Dewey
Defeats Truman." Gallup is best known for that one
half-century-old blunder. There's a terrible irony
in that. The studious George Gallup did more than
anyone to put opinion polling on solid ground.
Let's go to back to the Landon-Roosevelt race in
1936. Thirty-five-year-old George Gallup was
running a fledgling polling service. He'd begun his
career by advising newspapers on how readers used
their papers. Gallup had written both master's and
doctoral theses on the psychology of marketing.
He'd gone on to become a journalism professor at
Northwestern University. Then a New York
advertising agency hired him out of academia.
Political polls were 130 years old by then. The
expression "straw poll" goes back to rural America
where it derived from another old saying, "straws
in the wind." A farmer once threw a handful of
straws into the air to see which way the wind was
blowing. In the 1820s, newspapers began doing straw
polls in the streets to see how political winds
Gallup brought science to that process. Richard
Smith tells how, by the time Landon challenged
Roosevelt, the prestigious Literary
Digest magazine was America's leading
pollster. The Digest featured a
regular poll called "America Speaks." It drew
samples from phone books and auto registrations.
Gallup knew that such samples were biased toward
people with means. I remember life in those days:
not everyone could afford cars or phones. My
parents, who had both, strongly supported the
So the Digest predicted a solid
victory for Landon. Using a far smaller, far better
sample, Gallup predicted Roosevelt's victory. He
did more than that. He also showed why the
Digest's flawed methods predicted
Landon would win. In the wake of that, the
Digest folded up, and Gallup became
Then, in 1948, Gallup blew the Truman-Dewey
prediction. How? His mistake was to quit polling
two weeks before the election with fourteen percent
of the electorate still undecided. After that
humiliation, Gallup went back to analyze his error.
He emerged with the maxim, "Undecided voters side
with the incumbent."
Unlike the Literary Digest, Gallup
bounced back, and his polls flourish today.
Meanwhile, every trailing politician since 1948 has
promised to do what Truman did, but few actually
have. And yet Gallup's great gaffe was a fine
legacy. It reminded us that the best oracle cannot
be trusted absolutely. The stars do not control our
lives, and it is never completely over -- until
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds