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George Gallup, Twentieth-Century Pioneer

George Gallup, Twentieth-Century Pioneer

by Sarah Van Allen


PRINCETON, NJ -- Born in 1901, at the start of a new century, George Gallup dedicated most of his 82 years to asking questions. His respect and interest for what each individual had to say made him one of the century's keenest listeners. He never tired of saying that there were five billion ways to live a life and we should study each one.

Gallup, a native Iowan, studied journalism at the University of Iowa. He began to measure reader interest in magazines and newspaper features while a student. His Ph.D. thesis in psychology was titled "An Objective Method for Determining Reader Interest in the Content of a Newspaper," and used scientifically selected samples. Gallup had begun his lifelong passion of measuring public attitudes on political, social and economic issues of the day.

After Raymond Rubicam saw Gallup's 8 February 1930 article inEditor & Publisher, "Guesswork Eliminated in New Method For Determining Reader Interest," he invited Gallup to come to New York and start the first research department in an advertising agency. Dr. and Mrs. Gallup and their two sons, Alec and George, moved east. Now 31, Gallup started working at Young & Rubicam on 1 July 1932. Gallup described Rubicam as having "the most admirable qualities -- intellectual integrity and intellectual curiosity."

In that same year, Gallup's mother-in-law, Ola Babcock Miller, was placed on the Democratic ticket in Iowa, in honor of her husband's efforts for the party. Alex Miller had been the editor and publisher of an Iowan Democratic newspaper. As "no Democrat had been elected to a high state office in Iowa since the Civil War," it seemed unlikely she would be elected. However, Mrs. Miller was elected in 1932 as Iowa's first female Secretary of State -- a result George Gallup predicted in what might have been the first scientific political survey ever conducted.

As a result of measuring the electorate in Iowa, and drawing on his journalism experience and work in the research business, Gallup began to develop the idea for a national weekly poll of public opinion.

Gallup founded the American Institute of Public Opinion in Princeton, New Jersey, and on 20 October 1935, the first release was printed. The syndicated column,America Speaks, reported on the timeless issue of government spending. The question asked was, "Do you think expenditures by the government for relief and recovery are too little, too great, or about right?" The results: 60% said, "too great," 31% said, "about right," and 9% said, "too little."

George Gallup, Jr., wrote, "If the 1936 election performance of scientific polls gave the fledgling industry considerable credibility with the U.S. public, their performance in the 1948 election threatened to undo everything." Lulled into thinking that few votes would change after the start of the presidential campaign, the three polling organizations -- Gallup, Roper, and Crossley -- stopped interviewing several weeks before the election, predicting a win for Republican Thomas E. Dewey. By ending their efforts early, the polls missed the swing of third-party voters back to Harry S. Truman's camp in the final days of the campaign.

Despite the severe blow the polling industry sustained that year, Gallup refused to give up. He never doubted for a moment the validity of scientific sampling or its potential value to society. Following the 1948 election -- and after one of President Truman's good-natured jibes at the polls -- Gallup said in a speech:

I have the greatest admiration for President Truman because he fights for what he believes. I propose to do the same thing. As long as public opinion is important in this country, and until someone finds a better way of appraising it -- I intend to go right ahead with the task of reporting the opinions of the people on issues vital to their welfare.

Although measuring opinions of others was of much more interest to Gallup than expressing his own, he did express a few now and then. Election reform, including term limits was one such area. He wrote in 1976, "The best way to curb the insatiable desire to get re-elected is to make re-election impossible." He also agreed with those who called for tighter limits on campaign spending, and held the conviction that politics should be a period of service and not a career.

In this same 1976 document, Gallup continued, "We must select candidates with the same care with which we choose college presidents or heads of business organizations -- even football coaches. One of the main functions of each political party should be to establish search and screening committees to make certain that in each congressional district, each state, and in the nation itself, the ablest individuals are sought out and induced to stand for office."

Gallup's gift and contribution was that he knew what to measure, how to measure it and how to interpret the findings.

The Gallup family coat of arms includes the motto, "Be Bold, Be Wise." No four words could describe more accurately how our founder set our company's course for the new millennium.

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