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By | May 26, 2012

Dear Toolkit,

Can you tell us how Gallup polls came about and if they're legit or just another scam?

Doubting Thomas

Dear Doubting,

An interesting question! Although there are many, many polling agencies, we always think of the name Gallup in conjunction with the word poll, don't we? In spite of our sometimes-cynical view of market research, I think you'll find that the godfather of modern polling didn't really have a "marketing" bone in his body -- not in the manipulative sense that we think of it today, at least.

Public opinion polling existed for centuries before George Horace Gallup came along. But the coincidence of his birth with the birth of what we now call the "information age" assured him a place in the nation's history. Gallup was a natural communicator at a time when mass communication was burgeoning. Newspapers and radio were homogenizing the culture and language of the country. Advertising was becoming an ever more powerful industry.

George was the youngest of several children in a very close and stable Iowa family. He attended the University of Iowa beginning in 1922, became editor of its newspaper, and eventually went on to become a highly respected professor of journalism. During his term as editor of the school paper, Gallup was one of many students hired by a St. Louis newspaper to survey its readers and determine what portions of the paper were being read. From this humble beginning, the science of market research (Gallup-style) evolved. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on public opinion surveying and taught survey strategies in his journalism classes, emphasizing its usefulness in political campaigns.

Gallup developed his own methods for framing survey questions to yield more accurate data than was usually gleaned from such studies. He constantly refined these methods and gained a reputation for being not only precise but, more importantly, for being objective. He refused to skew survey questions to produce predetermined results. He deemed himself an educator, a professional journalist and a scientific researcher, and he consistently preserved objectivity in all his surveys. This characteristic would make his poll results "legit," and separate his work from the manipulative "scams" that certainly abound today, just as they did back then.

While teaching at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago, Gallup was hired by Lever Brothers, a soap manufacturer, to survey the effectiveness of their product advertising. His success at this task led to a job with Young and Rubicam, the famous New York ad agency. While working in New York, Gallup moonlighted in New Jersey. In 1935 he founded the American Institute of Public Opinion (AIPO) in Princeton to develop a syndicated column called "America Speaks." In it he reported and analyzed the results of various polls he conducted, usually on political topics. Eventually the column became known simply as "The Gallup Poll."

Gallup's methods of "sampling" small numbers of demographically diverse individuals rather than surveying huge groups drew much criticism, but the accuracy of his election predictions vindicated his system. He went on to create ARI (Audience Research, Inc.) to do research in mass media, trying to learn about the demographics of radio and movie audiences. Gallup, a great researcher but an unenthusiastic manager and businessman, hired David Oglivy to manage this venture; the same Ogilvy that went on to found the still powerful Ogilvy & Mather agency. This was just one of many fortuitous associations Gallup made with other talented men of his time.

But into each life a little rain must fall, and Gallup's life was no exception. The deluge that nearly sank him was the notorious "Dewey Defeats Truman" fiasco. His error in that event was stopping polling too early, missing the last minute surge for Truman. Many newspapers cancelled his column and it took Gallup some time to rebuild his cache for accuracy. Yet he was so dedicated to the idea that objective polling was critical to the welfare of the country and his credibility was otherwise so unblemished, he was eventually forgiven this one enormous failure. Subsequent elections were accurately predicted and public confidence restored in what became the Gallup Organization.

George Gallup, Sr. died in 1984. His sons sold the firm in 1988, but it continues to operate from Princeton, New Jersey as the Gallup Organization.

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