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OPINION: The Black & White Beans

15 minute read

On the sunny sidewalk outside a bookstore on Hollywood’s North Vermont Avenue, a legless pencil peddler had set up his pitch. A pretty young woman knelt down beside him and began to ask him questions. Did he think Communists should be barred from jobs in vital U.S. industries? In a muddy Italian accent the peddler replied that he knew nothing about Communists, but he did know that he was paying too much for his $40-a-month room. Did he know who John L. Lewis was? That was easier. “Eez a boxer. A fighter.”

Mrs. Irene Kadlec hunched down closer. With sympathy and perseverance, she coaxed forth the answers to a dozen other questions. She was doing her job as an interviewer for the Gallup Poll.

The halting replies did not disconcert her. She jotted down each one with meticulous care. When it was all over (it had taken 30 minutes), she made a few more notes at the bottom of her clipboard. Telephone? “No.” Union member? “No.” “Man.” “White.” She thanked the peddler and moved on to the park adjoining Central Public Library in dirty, downtown Los Angeles.

There she marched briskly up to a handsome, middle-aged man reading a mystery magazine. What was his favorite sport? Ballet dancing. What did he think of the U.S. policy shift in China? He had never heard of it. Before the day was out Pollster Kadlec had talked to a dozen other people. She was careful to avoid anyone in a hurry or anyone carrying packages. Among her choices: a 70-year-old attorney (who asked to be interviewed), a Negro carpenter, a woman artist (who did not think a meeting of Truman and Stalin would do any good).

Twenty-one hundred miles away, in Chicago, a 20-year-old university student named Barry Nathan pinned on his Gallup Poll button and sallied forth. He concentrated on first-floor apartments (“it’s harder for them to refuse”) and people waiting in self-service laundries (“God’s gift to the interviewer”). Unlike chatty Mrs. Kadlec, he invariably opened his interview with the approved Gallup introduction: “I’d like your opinion on a few leading topics of the day.”

Across the U.S., on the same day, some 300 other dogged interviewers were asking the same questions of 3,000 other more or Iess well-informed U.S. citizens. Should the U.S. have daylight-saving time all year round? Should Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin sit down together and talk things over? How is Harry Truman doing his job? Which Republican would you like to see President?

Needles in a Haystack. Last week, sitting in his Princeton, N.J. office, Dr. George Horace Gallup riffled contentedly through the answers. A big, friendly, teddybear of a man with a passion for facts & figures, Pollster Gallup has been finding needles in the U.S. haystack for the past twelve years. Other pollsters, like Elmo Roper and Archibald Crossley, have been doing it just as long. But George Gallup’s four-a-week releases to 126 U.S. newspapers have made the “Gallup Poll” a household word and Gallup the Babe Ruth of the polling profession.

Now that he had heard from Mrs. Kadlec, Barry Nathan and the others, George Gallup was ready with another report on what the U.S. people thought about shoes, ships, sealing wax, cabbages & kings. He announced that 52% thought the U.S. should have daylight time only in summer; a solid 60% thought a Stalin-Truman meeting would be a good idea; 55% approved of military aid to China.

Those were Pollster Gallup’s latest contributions to his bulging card index of U.S. opinions, beliefs, customs and morals. How much did his findings have to do with the price of eggs? That was another question. In the election year of 1948, what most U.S. citizens were watching eagerly were the computations on Pollster Gallup’s political slide rule.

Sizzling Statistics. This week the Gallup Poll had some sizzling statistics to report. After an unprecedented series of ups & downs, President Harry Truman’s political popularity was within 4% of his alltime low. As of last week, only 36% of U.S. voters still thought the President was doing a good job.

As the President’s stock fell, the fortunes of his Republican rivals rose. The new leader of the Republican parade: meteoric Harold Stassen, whose 31% rating among Republican candidates sent him ahead of New York’s Governor Tom Dewey for the first time.

The news of Truman’s slump sent a fresh wave of confidence surging through Republican ranks. It plunged Democrats into corresponding gloom. It also raised many questions sure to be asked often between now and November. How accurate are the polls ? Is their sampling really scientific? Can the result of elections be predicted on a slide rule? Do polls follow the voters or do voters follow the polls? Are the polls, in short, leading democracy by its too gullible nose?

Pollster Gallup defends the accuracy of his poll with a mathematical formula: “Suppose there are 7,000 white beans and 3,000 black beans well churned up in a barrel. If you scoop out 100 of them, you’ll get approximately 70 white beans and 30 black in your hand and the range of your possible error can be computed mathematically. As long as the barrel contains many more beans than your handful, the proportion will remain within that margin of error 997 times out of 1,000.” The reverse, he maintains, is equally true: a proportion of 7 to 3 in the hand means a proportion of 7 to 3 in the barrel.

Thus Pollster Gallup’s problem is: 1) to work out the proportions of the barrel, i.e., determine the true social, political and economic complexion of the U.S. people; 2) choose his handful (people to be interviewed) accordingly; 3) make sure that the two correspond exactly.

No Rugged Individualism. He has determined the complexion of the U.S. people with near-mathematical exactitude (see chart) from census statistics, Government reports, etc., has made his own calculation of the U.S. voting population by such adjustments as canceling out non-voting Southern Negroes & poor whites. He knows, for instance, that 28% of U.S. voters live in the Middle Atlantic states, that 34% of them live in cities of over 100,000 population, that only 23% of them are of average means (i.e., skilled workers, white-collar employees, small shopkeepers), that 43% of them are between the ages of 30 and 49. If necessary, Gallup statisticians can dig deeper: 16% of them are farmers; 42% of them have gone to high school; 38% now call themselves Democrats, 36% Republicans, 26% independents, third party or no party.

As long as his polltakers keep precisely to those percentages in choosing their subjects to be interviewed, the whole U.S. electorate can safely be reduced to a miniature sample of only 3,000.* And despite the cherished American illusion of rugged individualism, the factors which determine voters opinions are the factors neatly worked out on Dr. Gallup’s chart.

Like all theories, Gallup’s has its obvious limits. No poll is any better than its interviewers. Though the polltakers’ instructions carefully specify the cross-section to be taken, some Gallup pollsters are reluctant to venture into poorer districts; others fill out their ballots by punching doorbells in the daytime, thus missing jobholders.

Then there is the exacting job of framing the questions and weighing the answers. In pollsters’ jargon, that breaks down into such specific problems as how to get around the “prestige answer” (what the “respondent” thinks he ought to think) and how to evaluate the “intensity factor” (how strongly the “respondent” feels about it). To solve such difficulties Pollster Roper has developed the “cafeteria” question, which gives a choice of answers from soup to nuts. Pollster Gallup has developed a system called the “quintamensional plan of question design,” which measures not only the yes & no, but also the “respondent’s” knowledge and his reasons for & against any issue.

When taking election polls, Gallup has two extra headaches. Ever since the early days of the New Deal, it has been proved that the heavier the vote, the larger the Democratic percentage. Thus, to arrive at his final winning percentage, Gallup must estimate in advance how many voters will go to the polls. His other headache is doping out the electoral vote; in 1944 Ohio went Republican by only 2/10 of 1% of the ballots. His fondest dream is that Congress will some day abolish the Electoral College.

In 1936, he underestimated Franklin Roosevelt’s popular vote by 7% (Roper was off only 1%, Crossley was off 7%). But in 196 elections since then his average error in estimating the popular vote has never been greater than 4%; since 1940, never greater than 3%. In 1940 he called the turn within 3% (Roper was within 1%, Crossley within 4%); in 1944 within 1% of the civilian vote (Roper within less than 1% and Crossley within 2% of the combined civilian and soldier vote).

Born to Poll. The methods which George Gallup uses are as old as those used by grain samplers, cotton testers or tea tasters. Gallup’s contribution has been to apply those methods commercially to everything and anything in the world. A friend has said of him: “He wishes he had invented the ruler. Since someone beat him to it, Gallup has spent his life thinking up new ways to use it.” It is almost true to say that George Gallup was born to be a pollster.

He was born in Jefferson, Iowa (pop. 4,000) in November 1901. His father was looked on as something of an eccentric by the neighbors. He built an eight-sided house for his family, on the theory that it would be proof against wind storms, scribbled a new system of logic which Gallup still hopes to edit some day. He was an ardent Bryan man. As a joke, people started calling George “Ted,” after Teddy Roosevelt, a nickname that has stuck ever since.

When Ted was a sophomore at the State University of Iowa, his father went broke in the postwar crash of land prices. Gallup made his own way with a towel service in the college locker room, later as editor of the Daily lowan. He transformed the lowan from a routine college puff sheet into a paper with national news. He began to get interested in why people read certain stories—and how many and which ones they actually do read. After graduation he stayed on at Iowa as a graduate student in psychology.

Toothpaste & Politics. He began his first experiments in polling, tramping the streets of Iowa City with a briefcase full of newspapers. At that time, a common way of measuring reader interest was to yank out the crossword puzzle for a week and count the complaints. Gallup adopted the startling device of confronting a reader with the whole newspaper and asking him exactly what he liked and didn’t like about it.

He found out that most readers preferred comics to the front page, feature stories to news. This gave him the material for a Ph.D. thesis, got him a job teaching at Drake University and the chance to run reader surveys for half a dozen or more top U.S. newspapers.

One survey for the Des Moines Register and Tribune led to a bigger & better rotogravure section and, eventually, to Look magazine. Another sold the Chicago Tribune’s Bertie McCormick on the public demand for fat Sunday editions. A third, for William Randolph Hearst, led to the birth of the first comic-strip advertising and a job for George Gallup as head of the research division in the Manhattan advertising firm of Young & Rubicam, Inc.

By 1932 Pollster Gallup was an up-&coming expert at finding out who read what kind of toothpaste ads and why. One day he said to himself: “If it works for toothpaste, why not for politics?”

Fall of the Digest. He talked the idea over with a blond, blue-eyed Midwestern salesman of newspaper features named Harold Anderson, who had become a partner in Gallup’s research service. Anderson jumped at it, urged Gallup on. He began lining up newspaper publishers, soon interested both the Washington Post’s Eugene Meyer and the New York Herald Tribune’s Helen Rogers Reid.

After three years of practice, Gallup had assured himself that polls on toothpaste and politics were one & the same. He was also convinced that the famed Literary Digest poll was heading for a disastrous cropper. The millions of Digest postcards were mailed on the basis of telephone and auto registration lists and took no account of the low-income voters who had swung solidly behind the New Deal.

Not long after the first Gallup Poll appeared, Gallup brashly announced that the Digest would be wrong in the 1936 election, followed that up with a prediction that the Digest, by its methods, was bound to pick Landon by 56%.

On election night, 1936, Gallup flipped on the radio and knew he was in. Though he had badly underestimated Roosevelt’s winning margin, he had called the Digest’s predictions within 1%. After that, it was simply a question of convincing newspaper publishers that there was still news for pollsters to report.

Facts & Good Sense. At 46, Gallup is still the rumpled, well-fed Iowa boy who first came east to make his fortune. Tweedy, balding, good-humored, unhurried, he talks earnestly in a deep, Midwestern voice, addresses everyone indiscriminately as “my friend.” A hard worker, he hates detail, refuses to read memos and rarely answers letters. He is a tablecloth sketcher. He is so absent minded that before he leaves for an appointment his secretary gives him a neat card telling him where & when to go and how to get there.

Gallup loves children and animals, hates cities and crowds. Since 1934 he has lived on a 500-acre dairy farm near Princeton with his wife Ophelia and three children: Julia, 11, Alec, 20 (a Princeton sophomore) and George Jr., 18 (now at Deerfield Academy). Since he gave up his Young & Rubicam vice presidency last year, he commutes to Manhattan two days a week, spends the rest of his time in Princeton, with three or four trips a year to his Los Angeles office, an occasional interviewing junket around the rural U.S.

To Gallup the two most important things in the world are: 1) facts and 2) the basic good sense of the U.S. people. No philosopher, he has a mind that refracts facts rather than absorbs them. But he has a Jeffersonian view of the importance of the people’s voice. It is a constant source of irritation to him that the sports page, with its box scores and summaries, its racing charts and batting averages, does for sports what Gallup wants to do for all of the U.S. “Everything is reduced to facts and figures but the things that count,” he says.

Limitless Fields. But he is making progress. His American Institute of Public Opinion (the grandiloquent official title of the Gallup Poll), distributed by Partner Anderson’s Publishers Syndicate, has been expanded into a network covering eleven foreign nations.** Other Gallup researchers study the effect of advertisements in a dummy magazine called Impact, probe the tastes of Book-of-the-Month Club readers, help select titles for Bantam Books.

Since 1939, Gallup’s Audience Research Inc. (TIME, Oct. 13) has been pre-testing movie titles, scripts and casts for Hollywood producers, can now predict for nervous movie magnates the final box-office draw within 3%. Last fall a similar setup was organized to measure the pulling power of radio stars (top draw in both by the Gallup yardstick: Bing Crosby). The full Gallup empire takes an annual operating budget of around $750,000 a year, maintains offices in Princeton, Manhattan and Los Angeles, requires a staff of 1,200 part-time interviewers for the Gallup Poll alone.

“What the People Desire.” Pollster Gallup is not unaware of the impact which all these rulers, yardsticks and thermometers have had on the workings of democracy. In his own defense, he likes to quote a phrase of Lincoln’s: “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.”

But finding that out exactly presupposes that the people know exactly—and will say so. Can his supposedly unweighted questions draw sufficiently weighty answers? Gallup can cite example after example to indicate that they can and do. On his own ratings the people were three months ahead of Congress on the draft in 1940, nine months ahead on repeal of the neutrality embargo, two years ahead on spreading the income-tax burden from 4 to 40 million U.S. citizens. They advocated revision of the Wagner Act long before Congress passed the Taft-Hartley law. If Congress were legislating according to Gallup Poll preferences, the U.S. would now have universal military training, price control, rationing, direct election of the President and a 49th state (Hawaii).

The commonest criticism of Gallup’s political polls has been that they start a bandwagon for the candidate who happens to be leading in the poll. Gallup’s answer to that is to point to Harold Stassen, who did not reach the top of the poll until after he won in Wisconsin.

The argument over whether public-opinion polls are good or bad for a democracy has become somewhat academic —they are obviously here to stay. They can find out what the people, who rule a democracy, think and want. But a democracy also needs leadership by men who must frequently tell the people why a popular notion—no matter how widely held—can be wrong.

* For those people who wonder why they have never been interviewed by a Gallup pollster, Gallup has worked out a mathematical answer: at 3,000 interviews a fortnight, it would take him 450 years to get around to everybody.

** Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Brazil, The Netherlands and Italy (where the Doxa pollsters called the Communist vote within 4% a fortnight ago).

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