George Gallup (1901-1984) almost singlehandedly changed the face of politics forever. He was the man that introduced the idea of statistically-based polling into national politics and thus introduced the poll as a statistically valid basis for the decisions that politicians make. His name will forever be linked to the Gallup poll, his contribution to the political landscape.
George Gallup was born in 1901 in Jefferson, Iowa. He progressed throug schooling with much success and went on to study journalism at the University of Iowa at Iowa City. His doctoral thesis was in psychology, and it focused on using scientifically selected samples for polling reader interest in a newspaper. This was the first indication where his career and life would head.
He taught journalism at Drake University from 1929 to 1931, during which he spent his time refining his theories concerning scientific polling. In February 1930, Gallup published an article in Editor & Publisher, a widely read journal for journalists, that outlined methods for eliminating guesswork in determining reader interest, he came to the attention of Raymond Rubican, who headed a major advertising firm at the time in New York. As Gallup moved on to Northwestern University to teach in 1931 and 1932, he and Rubican stayed in contact, and in the spring of 1932, Rubican offered Gallup a job as the head of the first research department at an advertising firm, ever. In July 1932, Gallup headed east to New York to work at Young & Rubican.
Also in 1932, Gallup's fingers first dabbled in political polling. His mother-in-law, Ola Babcock Miller, ran for Secretary of State in Iowa on the Democratic ticket. It seemed like a huge long shot that she would win; after all, no Democrat had won a high state office in Iowa since the Civil War. Gallup had a personal interest in the election, so he applied his polling techniques to the race and discovered that Miller was in fact leading the race by a significant margin. Gallup publicly predicted that Miller would win, even in the face of long odds, and come November, she took home the office. This may have been the first scientific poll ever run to predict a political election.
As a result of this success and Gallup's experience in journalism, psychology, and research, Gallup spent the mid-1930s considering the idea for a national weekly opinion poll, which would come to be known as the Gallup poll. He founded the American Institute of Public Opinion in Princeton, New Jersey in 1935, and began to conduct a weekly poll on the issues at the time, the first of which revolved around President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies.
In 1936 came Gallup's greatest success. The magazine Literary Digest had a tradition of many years of polling their readership and predicting the winner of the presidential race and their methods had a long history of success dating back to before 1900. In 1936, the poll predicted that Alfred Landon would defeat incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt in the presidential election that year. Gallup's polls told a different story, and so Gallup contradicted the Literary Digest poll loudly and publicly. When Roosevelt won the election in a landslide, Gallup's reputation and influence took a massive jump.
Gallup went on with his weekly polls and presidential predictions for years, predicting FDR's victories in 1940 and 1944 as well. In 1948, however, his work was almost undone. Harry S Truman was losing the race by a large margin to Thomas Dewey in the fall of 1948 and the lead was such that Gallup declared Dewey to be the winner and stopped polling on the issue. When a late rush of third party voters went to Truman, narrowly giving him the election, it threatened to completely undermine Gallup's work, and he vowed to never make the same mistake again. To this day, polling goes on until the last possible second in presidential races.
Since 1948, Gallup's polls and methods have correctly predicted the winner of every presidential race in the United States and the Gallup Organization, devoted to using his methods for polling, have come to provide a valuable indicator of public opinion. George Gallup passed on in 1984, leaving behind a legacy of knowing when and how to measure public opinion and how to interpret it, developments that have changed the course of history in the United States and abroad.