Reassessing Public Opinion Polling in the Truman Administration

By Rottinghaus, Brandon | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2003 | Go to article overview
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Reassessing Public Opinion Polling in the Truman Administration

Rottinghaus, Brandon, Presidential Studies Quarterly

Scholars have recently explored the origins of the institutionalization of public opinion polling in the administrative apparatus of the White House (see Jacobs and Shapiro 1995; Heith 1998; Eisinger and Brown 1998; Eisinger 2000). However, the development and utilization of public opinion polls by presidents has yet to be fully explicated, in part because of incomplete historical information on the presidential administration of Harry Truman. Truman remains an aberration in the development of presidential polling, using fewer polls than Franklin Roosevelt and presidents who served subsequent to Truman. However, Truman's presidency perpetuated and advanced the polling apparatus, given new evidence showing poll consultation in the Truman administration.

Presidential scholars (Brace and Hinckley 1992; Kemell 1986; Cornwell 1965), scholars of public opinion (Heith 1998; Geer 1996;Jacobs and Shapiro 1995; Herbst 1993;Jacobs 1993, 1992), and historians of President Truman (Hamby 1995; Heller 1980) all concede that the Truman administration did not have much interest in public opinion polling. Truman himself is also often quoted as negatively referring to polling and pollsters and disavowing the usefulness and accuracy of polls. As a revision to these claims, uncovered archival work shows that the Truman administration was concerned with public opinion polling and did consult polling on selected issues, both in the White House and during the 1948 election.

Truman's View of Public Opinion Polling

Truman's public position on opinion polls was very clear. He did not put much stock in the polls, the pollsters who developed them, or the politicians who obsessed over them. Truman was openly critical of these polls and pollsters for a variety of reasons. The fluctuation of Gallup's presidential approval polls (from a height of 80 percent to a depth of 23 percent) over the course of Truman's presidency combined with Gallup's famous failed prediction of the president's defeat to Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election convinced Truman that polling was unreliable, ineffective, and capricious. Truman wrote in his memoirs,

   I never paid any attention to the polls myself, because in my
   judgment they did not represent a true cross section of American
   opinion. I did not believe that the major components of our society,
   such as agriculture, management, and labor, were accurately sampled.
   I also know that the polls did not represent facts but mere
   speculation, and I have always placed my faith in the known facts.
   (Truman 1956)

In an unsent letter addressed to Elmo Roper responding to Roper's postelection poll results dated December 30, 1948, Truman writes, (1)

   It [Roper's report] is interesting, but it still misses the main
   point. Candidates make election contests, not pole [sic] takers of
   press comments by paid column writers. Edited news columns and
   misleading headlines have some effect--not much. People in general
   have lost faith in the modern press and its policies. That is a good
   thing too. No one segment should be able to control public opinion.
   Leadership still counts.

Truman's opinion on polls is consistent with his definition of leadership. Truman is often quoted as saying,

   I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he'd taken a poll in
   Egypt? What would Jesus Christ have preached if he'd taken a poll in
   Israel? Where would the Reformation have gone if Martin Luther had
   taken a poll? It isn't polls or public opinion of the moment that
   counts. It is right and wrong, and leadership--men with fortitude,
   honesty and a belief in the right that makes epochs in the history
   of the world. (Hamby 1995)

Based on these public and private assertions from Truman, it seems he was a president who led an administration that did not rely on public opinion polls on any level.

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