The Press: Battle of the Pollsters

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"Open season on pollsters has arrived," wrote Dr. George Gallup last week, "and the shooting, as usual, comes from those who do not like the poll findings." As might be expected, the pollster being shot at the most was Gallup himself.

In a survey right after the Republican National Convention, Gallup found 50% of the voters in favor of Nixon, 44% for Kennedy, and 6% undecided. These results were arrived at through Gallup's complicated polling procedures. Voter attitudes are fixed to the day of the poll, do not attempt to show how they might change by election day. Gallup excludes as nonvoters people who are not citizens, who failed to vote in the last national election, or who have failed to register thus far. Each section of the country is represented in proportion to the number of votes it cast in the total vote in the last national election. Since 1948, when Gallup stopped polling in mid-October, after having predicted Dewey's victory over Harry Truman, Gallup findings have deviated only 1.7% from election results. But the recent poll soon landed Gallup in a soup of controversy.

Up from the Farmer. The liberal New York Post was almost inevitably reminded of a quip made by Humorist Goodman Ace: "Public opinion polls reach everyone in America, from the farmer in his field right up to the President of the United States, Thomas E. Dewey." But to Tennessee's Democratic Senator Albert Gore, Gallup's 1960 post-convention poll was downright sinister. The polls, cried Gore, are "almost meaningless and in many instances misleading," but they still have an "entirely unjustified" influence on elections. With that, Gore hinted at an investigation of the pollsters by the Senate Privileges and Elections Subcommittee.

For Gallup, perhaps the unkindest cuts of all came from some of his fellow pulse takers. Doorbell-ringing Pollster Sam Lubell wrote scornfully of "other polls" which "maintain that the presidential 'undecided' vote is as low as 6% of the total." In his own election canvass, said Lubell, he had found that no less than 18% of the electorate had yet to make up its mind about how to vote in November. And Syndicated Columnist Joseph Alsop devoted an entire column to criticizing Gallup's methods. "In the newspaper trade," wrote Alsop, "it is usually considered bad form for one wretched scribbler to make remarks in print about the work of another. Yet an exception seems to be justified in the case of the inquiring Dr. George Gallup's important first poll after the national conventions."

The gist of Alsop's criticism was that Gallup had taken voters who were merely "leaning" toward one candidate or another and had placed them in the "decided" column. Wrote Alsop: "All this is not intended to suggest that Dr. Gallup has been cooking his poll. Yet the facts "have to be faced that this poll has become a fairly major extra-legal institution of American politics. For this reason, such things as unannounced transformations of 'leaners' into 'decideds' do not serve the public interest."

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