Do Opinion Polls Serve Democracy? – 1948 – The Accuracy Of Getting A Nations Pulse – Past Daily Reference Room
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Opinion Polls – gathering data and trying to figure out where the public was going, where were they leaning and would they do what they said they would once they got inside the voting booth? The big difference between opinion gathering in 2019 and 1948 is that technology was such that, in 1948 pretty much all of it was done by hand – pollsters canvassed streets and neighborhoods, armed with questions, knocking on doors. Pollsters stood on busy street corners, pulling random passersby or using the telephone method of calling random people out of the phonebook and asking questions. None of it was thoroughly reliable – but it did give you some idea of where the American voter and consumer was in the grand scheme of things, whether it was accurate or not.
In 1948, Opinion Polls were said to have played a huge part in selecting Thomas E. Dewey as the Republican candidate for President. Polls showed Dewey would defeat Truman by a large margin and that the polling data bolstered the predictions of a sweeping victory. But was having all that available information a good thing for Democracy? Could pulling a random sampling of opinions truly predict the outcome of a national election?
Many expressed doubts, even in 1948 – voters had proven to be fickle, often changing their minds while in the process of voting. Polls showing a landslide victory for one could have the opposite affect by keeping voters away from the polls, under the impression their votes weren’t needed anyway, so . . .
And as was the case in 1948, the polls proved completely wrong. Did they just get faulty data or were Republicans too flushed with assurance of victory that voting for Dewey would be pointless? It was hard to tell – but the truth of the matter was; the polls weren’t the be-all-end-all of predicting the outcome of an election.
Just as they aren’t now – maybe the methods of information gathering have changed, the reliability still comes under question. Can you accurately predict how a voter is going to mark their ballot – you really can’t, and you really may never be able to.
To get a reminder that opinion polls and voting data are sketchy by their nature – here is a discussion held shortly after the 1948 Republican Convention, where Thomas E. Dewey was selected over Robert Taft based almost solely on opinion polls.
Seventy-one years later, you still can’t accurately predict the outcome of an election and you still can’t read someone’s mind. Here is that episode of The Chicago University Roundtable, as it was first aired on June 27, 1948.