But of course it was Truman who defeated Dewey, not the other way around. It was a voting mistake that was worthy of 2016 or 2020. (To get a feel for the misfire this year, on election day 538 Biden put Biden’s lead in Florida at 2.5 percent, while Real Clear Politics put it at 0.9 percent. Trump is now up 3.4 percent there 96 percent of the votes counted – an error between 4.3 and 5.9 percent). And just like egg-faced those who predicted a Biden frenzy this week, journalists who appended their report to Gallup’s data came in for ridicule. Some cheered the experts and pollsters. By doing New republicRichard Strout, who works under his usual pseudonym “T.R.B.” wrote, celebrating “a radiant and wonderful feeling that the American people couldn’t take polls [and] knew his own mind. “
Nobody enjoyed this epic failure more than the respected political scientist Lindsay Rogers of Columbia University. For years, Rogers had roared over the unreliability of the polls and, more importantly, the baseless trust people put in them. In exquisite timing, Rogers published a book in 1949, entitled The pollsters. (The coinage was reminiscent of the term Huckstersthough Rogers denied any intentional allusion.) Rogers’ polemic was a kind of counter-argument to a book Gallup himself had published a few years earlier The pulse of democracy.
In his book (written with Saul Forbes Rae), Gallup had insisted that “scientific” opinion polls were the best way to measure the public’s desires and thereby serve democracy. science was the key word. Gallup placed himself in the company of chemists and physicists, men in white coats. “Measuring public opinion requires a certain attitude from the laboratory,” he wrote. “It takes people who are trained in the scientific method.” He boasted of his undiluted statistical knowledge – his book quoted the probability theories of the 17th century mathematician Jacob Bernoulli – which placed his work beyond the ability of laypeople. He insisted that his work was just a matter of calculating numbers, with no interpretive coloring. He scoffed at naysayers who put “scientific” in quotation marks when it modified “poll”. “If our work is not scientific,” wrote Gallup, “then no one in the social sciences and few in the natural sciences have the right to use the word.”
Rogers wouldn’t benefit from it. A PhD from Johns Hopkins, a designated chair at Columbia University and a retired journalist, he had authority among academics and the educated public. As a courtly man with Old World Airs, he was very different in his work and enjoyed controversy. In November 1941 he had written a long article for Harpers Destroy Gallup and “purge the exaggerated claims about what the data mean”. He had since been on a crusade to explode pollsters’ claims that they could capture the public consciousness with any kind of precision.
Many of Roger’s arguments were not about forecasting, but about questionnaires – whether elected leaders should consider the polls when deciding which policies should be adopted. Another part of his complaints centered on the insoluble difficulties of getting really objective information from survey methods. It was now known that the nature of the sample, the wording of the questions, the types of answers respondents were allowed to offer, and the methods of tabulating them were capable of introducing errors or yielding misleading results.
The methods could, of course, be tweaked and even improved (although note that Gallup and other pollsters misjudged the elections of 1952, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2012 by far and wide – hardly a proud record ). In essence, however, Rogers’ criticism was not methodical. On a philosophical level, he rejected the idea that public opinion was measurable in the concrete way that pollsters claimed. Public opinion was too small to be measured precisely, even when refined with open-ended questions, intensity scales, and other methodological improvements introduced over the years. Public opinion is not like distance or mass or other scientifically measurable phenomena. it had no free standing existence other than the operation to measure it. The survey therefore pretended to quantify the non-quantifiable. Like others in the increasingly data-driven social sciences, Rogers said, public opinion analysts followed false gods of methodology. Understanding the public properly did not require pseudoscientific methods, but human insight.
Together with many others, Gallup pushed back against Lindsay and called him “the last of the chair philosophers in this field”. And while Gallup’s name endured over the decades due to its lucrative election business, Rogers disappeared into relative obscurity. Political science became inexorably more quantitative and data-driven, leaving behind its concerns about its claim to scientific status. In addition, the profits made by commercial pollsters – along with perhaps Gallup-like hopes for an improvement in democracy – ensured that polling practice did not wane anytime soon during election season. Over the years, critics from the world of journalism (columnist Mike Royko, Polemicist Christopher Hitchens) and science (political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg, Journalist historian W. Joseph Campbell) kept Rogers’ skepticism alive, but by and large, Americans continued to be seduced by the pull of pollsters every election season.
Perhaps Lindsay Rogers’ arguments about the impossibility of measuring public opinion with scientific precision should get a new hearing in the face of two consecutive bursts of flames by today’s George Gallup.
In the autopsies following the 2016 shock, there were complaints about faulty models and technical adjustments; Some pollsters defended themselves by pointing out that their tight demands on Hillary Clinton were within the margin of error. In 2020, when the Florida and other disputed states’ area code polls were so far from the mark – and with fancy recent results like Wisconsin +17 for Biden reported by even A-rated companies – there are screams that something Deeper went wrong. This survey is kind of broken now because of technology, methodology, or current politics.
But Lindsay Rogers could have had a more fundamental criticism: the idea of political voting was broken from the start. It was a falsely scientific method to put numbers on a concept that cannot be measured at all and whose shape changes with each attempt. Indeed, it is the vanity of political opinion – its resistance to clinging – that makes democracy necessary. When we measure mass or distance, we know we can do it accurately. However, our values, attitudes and opinions are not specific, they are fluid. They change over time – in the days and weeks before an election, as well as in the years in between. That is precisely why democracy demands that we vote again every few years.