OPINION: The Black & White Beans

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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.

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