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75 Years Ago, the First Gallup Poll
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75 Years Ago, the First Gallup Poll

75 Years Ago, the First Gallup Poll

A unique anniversary is upon us. Seventy-five years ago today -- Oct. 20, 1935 -- the Gallup Poll published its first official release of public opinion data.

Here we are three-quarters of a century later, still working to fulfill the mission laid out in that first release: providing scientific, nonpartisan assessment of American public opinion.

The subject of that first release? Well, given the fact that 1935 was smack dab in the middle of the Depression, it may come as no surprise that the topic focused on public opinion about "relief and recovery," or in other words, welfare. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was at that time heavily involved in creating a number of relief, recovery, and work programs designed to help people whose lives were being affected by the Depression. Figuring out what the public thought about all of this became Dr. George Gallup's first official poll question.

What may come as a surprise is the fact that the majority of Americans were negative about the government's "relief and recovery" efforts in the fall of 1935. The Gallup release noted that 60% of Americans believed "expenditures by the Government for relief and recovery" were too great, while just 9% said they were too little. Another 31% said they were about right.

Franklin Roosevelt of course was a Democrat. The Gallup release showed, as would be expected, that Democrats were more supportive of relief and recovery than Republicans. Fifty-three percent of Democrats said that the expenditure by the government on relief and recovery was about right. A whopping 89% of Republicans said it was too great.

Roosevelt in 1935 was coming up on his 1936 bid for re-election. His opponent ended up being Kansas Gov. Alf Landon. Landon's campaign was based in large part on opposition to the relief and recovery efforts of the Roosevelt administration. In his Republican nomination acceptance speech delivered in Topeka, Kan., in July 1936, Landon said among other things: "Too frequently recovery has been hindered, if not defeated, by political considerations . . . The present administration asked for, and received, extraordinary powers upon the assurance that these were to be temporary....We knew they were being undertaken hastily and with little deliberation . . . Now it becomes our duty to examine the record as it stands. The record shows that these measures did not fit together into any definite program of recovery. Many of them worked at cross-purposes and defeated themselves. Some developed into definite hindrances to recovery. They had the effect generally of extending control by Washington into the remotest corners of the country . . . "

I'm no presidential historian, and all elections are complex affairs, but one might think from the 1935 Gallup data that Landon's message would have hit a resonant chord with voters. And at least one very popular poll of the day, conducted by The Literary Digest magazine, predicted that Landon would in fact defeat Roosevelt in the November 1936 election.

But, Dr. George Gallup, the founder of our company, conducted polls using more systematic, scientific sampling techniques than were used by the Digest poll (which relied on millions of mailed in "ballots"). Dr. Gallup went public with his predictions that Roosevelt would win re-election handily. Roosevelt of course did win, and the Gallup poll was on its way to becoming a well-known and well-respected component of American political life. So within about a year of that October, 1935 release, Dr. Gallup's new approach to measuring public opinion had begun to make his name and his company a household name.

That first Gallup release was officially published by the American Institute of Public Opinion (AIPO), which is what Dr. Gallup called his organization in those early days. The release was accompanied by Dr. Gallup's statement of purpose for his company:

The American Institute of Public Opinion, a non partisan fact-finding organization which will report the trend of public opinion on one major issue each week, has collected this information by means of personal interviews and mail questionnaires from thousands of voters located in every state in the union. Persons in all walks of life have been polled in order to obtain an accurate cross section. The results of these polls are being published for the first time today in leading newspapers -- representing every shade of political preference.

That was the beginning. A lot has changed in the 75 years since that first release. Dr. Gallup passed away in 1984. The company has expanded greatly and now conducts research in many areas of business and social life, not only domestically here in the United States, but around the world. The methods used for sampling and measuring public opinion have changed significantly over the years. Interviewing in the U.S. is now primarily done by telephone -- landline and cell phone --rather than the in-person and mail surveys used in the early days. But our commitment remains the same -- providing nonpartisan and unbiased data measuring public opinion on the major issues of our time, allowing "people in all walks of life" to have their voice represented in the marketplaces of political discourse and social ideas.

Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup senior scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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