The Brief History of Polling in America
How We Got Here.
Public opinion polling in the United States, like so much else in the nation’s history, can be traced back to the Declaration of Independence. Its very language required that public opinion be taken into account. According to the document, the government and those in power could only hold power with “the consent of the governed.”
Abraham Lincoln once famously said, “What I want to get done is what the people desire to have done, and the question for me is how to find that out exactly.”
“ That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” -Declaration of Independence
This polling, particularly regarding political elections, began with the first recorded straw polls in 1824. These polls were initially used by local newspapers outside of polling places, and the method was later picked up by national newspapers and magazines.
As the 20th century approached, the rise of the social sciences in education and government brought sociology and statistics into the public forefront. Market research firms were founded, initially to help manufacturers make and market products of mass appeal.
One of the first practitioners of scientific polling, George Gallup, founded the American Institute of Public Opinion in 1936. Soon after, The Roper and Crossley Poll (FORTUNE poll) and Harris Poll were also up and running. The first non-commercial polling agency, The National Opinion Research Center was founded in 1941.
“Polling is merely an instrument for gauging public opinion. When a president or any other leader pays attention to poll results, he is, in effect, paying attention to the views of the people. Any other interpretation is nonsense.” -George Gallup
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first American President to use a private polling service to advise him on election strategy and public policy.
Beyond Roosevelt, using public polling has become the norm for U.S. candidates, with nearly every candidate employing internal pollsters to give them a gauge on public opinion.
Evolution of Polling
Today, with the advent of 24-hour cable news, polling has been available to more than just candidates and their staffers. The common US citizen with a television or even a newspaper subscription has access to the same polling information as the candidates. Over time, the validity and accuracy of polling has come into question: Never has this been more true than in the 2016 presidential election.
While Gallup, FORTUNE and Harris were the main polling groups starting in the early 20th century, polling has exploded even since 2005. According to a study by political scientist Michael Traugott in 2005, there was an estimated 900 percent increase in trial heat polls between 1984 and 2000, and that number has only continued to grow due largely to the rise in interactive-voice-response and Internet polls since the 2000 election.
In the 2008 election, there were an estimated 975 presidential trial heat questions and well over one million interviews conducted between Labor Day and Election Day, according to political scientist Costas Panagopolous.
Polling has evolved to the point where presidential election polling begins the day after the previous election ends. For example, on November 5, 2008, Gallup reported that Sarah Palin led as a potential Republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election.
The issue facing pollsters and their consumers now is what to believe and why to believe them. The growing number of polling groups has birthed a sort of competition, leading to comparisons between different polls, for example a Siena College poll or a Marist College poll versus an ABC News poll.
The lack of trust in polls and trust in the media have never been lower, especially with the outcome of the 2016 election.
The majority of national polls predicted a somewhat comfortable victory for Hillary Clinton and evidently they were way off.
The question we hope to grapple with now, is why they were so wrong, how they were so wrong and where to go from here.