"America Speaks": George Gallup's First Syndicated Public Opinion Poll

Article excerpt

George Gallup said the creation of public opinion polling grew from his experience in journalism, an encounter with electoral politics, and his training in applied psychology, and the goals of polling were to make audible the voice of the common man and bring science to democracy. This article, however, shows point-by-point connections between his reader-interest research and his first syndicated poll results, which appeared in "America Speaks" on October 20, 1935, in at least thirty newspapers across the country. It reveals the foundation of Gallup's public opinion polling in his market research and suggests that appealing to newspapers' readers and promoting his market research were additional goals. It also establishes an earlier date for the origin of the understanding of public opinion as poll results.

George Gallup's first syndicated public opinion poll, "America Speaks," appeared on October 20,1935, in at least twentyfive daily newspapers across the United States. The full page of poll results debuted fifty-four weeks before Franklin Delano Roosevelt was re-elected-just as Gallup had predicted-to a second term as president of the United States. By November 1936, seventy-eight newspapers carried Gallup's feature.'

This article reveals that Gallup used findings from his readerinterest research completed for newspapers and advertisers earlier in the decade to shape the content and presentation of "America Speaks."2 Furthermore, this study corrects previous assumptions about the origins of the widespread understanding of public opinion as poll results. It suggests that by carrying "America Speaks," newspapers helped to secure the mainstream definition of public opinion as an aggregate of individual opinions expressed privately. Thus, this research adds important details to the histories of newspapers, polling, and public opinion.

Mainstream understanding of the concept of public opinion is securely, if not universally, linked to the notion of one person giving one opinion privately in response to a survey question, with aggregates of multiple individual responses reported in poll results. In the early decades of the twentieth century, however, the understanding of public opinion varied widely.

Although scholars generally agree that the turn toward quantification for the meaning of public opinion occurred in the middle 1930s, the road leading to equating public opinion with polling results remains incompletely mapped.' Harwood Childs, a founding editor of Public Opinion Quarterly (POQ), used broad strokes to explain the social science developments that led to the quantification of the meaning of public opinion in the 1930s.4 Susan Herbst, a political scientist and public opinion historian, analyzed a shift in technique during the 193Os from straw polls, which were conducted by journalists and citizens who counted public sentiments, to a reliance on commercial polls conducted by businesses, which were established specifically to measure public opinion.5 Jean Converse, a survey research historian, noted the background in market research and sophisticated sampling that Gallup and others brought to public opinion polling.6 For Converse and Herbst the straw poll was the immediate precursor to public opinion polls.7 For Floyd Allport, writing in the first issue of POQ, his quantification of public opinion in poll results closed off other definitions of public opinion as "fictions and blind alleys."8 Albert Gollin, a former president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (APOR), chose a precise interval (between November 1936 and January 1937) and claimed that was when public opinion became widely equated with poll results.' Eleanor Singer, a former POQ editor, stated today's consensus regarding the timing of the understanding of the quantification of public opinion as poll results: "The field is really coterminous with the journal," which began publication in January 1937.10 Or as Philip E. …