However, after all, it was Truman who defeated Dewey, not the opposite manner round. It was a polling failure worthy of 2016 or 2020. (To offer a way of the misfire this 12 months: Going into Election Day, 538 put Biden’s Florida lead at 2.5 % whereas Actual Clear Politics put it at .9 %; Trump is now forward there by 3.4 % with 96 % of votes counted — an error of between 4.3 and 5.9 %). And simply as those that prognosticated a Biden romp this week are trying egg-faced, so journalists who hitched their reportage to Gallup’s information got here in for jeers. Some cheered the pundits’ and the pollsters’ comeuppance. Within the New Republic, Richard Strout, writing below his common pseudonym “T.R.B.,” celebrated “a glowing and fantastic sense that the American individuals couldn’t be ticketed by polls [and] knew its personal thoughts.”
Nobody relished this epic fail greater than the distinguished Columbia College political scientist Lindsay Rogers. For years, Rogers had been thundering concerning the unreliability of polling and — extra importantly —the groundless religion that individuals positioned in it. In an beautiful little bit of timing, Rogers printed a guide in 1949 entitled The Pollsters. (The coinage, wags famous, evoked the time period hucksters, although Rogers denied any intentional allusion.) Rogers’ polemic was a rebuttal, of kind, to a guide that Gallup himself had printed a couple of years earlier, known as The Pulse of Democracy.
In his guide (written with Saul Forbes Rae) Gallup had insisted that “scientific” opinion surveys have been the perfect means ever devised to gauge the general public’s wishes, and thus to serve democracy. Science was the important thing phrase. Gallup positioned himself within the firm of chemists and physicists, males in white coats. “Measuring public opinion requires a sure ‘laboratory’ perspective of thoughts,” he wrote. “It wants individuals educated within the scientific technique.” He boasted of his rarefied data of statistics — his guide cited the likelihood theories of the Seventeenth-century mathematician Jacob Bernoulli — that positioned his work past the ken of lay residents. He insisted his work was purely a matter of quantity crunching, devoid of interpretative coloration. He scoffed at naysayers who put citation marks round “scientific” when it modified “polling.” “If our work isn’t scientific,” Gallup wrote, “then nobody within the discipline of social science, and few of these within the pure sciences, have a proper to make use of that phrase.”
Rogers would have none of it. A PhD from Johns Hopkins, the holder of a named chair at Columbia College and a former journalist, he commanded authority amongst lecturers and the literate public alike. A courtly man with Outdated World airs, he ranged broadly in his work and relished controversy. In November 1941, he had written an extended article for Harper’s trashing Gallup and deflating “the exaggerated claims which are made as to what the information imply.” Since then he had been on a campaign to blow up the pollsters’ pretensions that they might pin down the general public thoughts with any form of precision.
A lot of Rogers arguments dealt not with forecasting however with problem polling — the query of whether or not elected leaders ought to thoughts the polls in deciding which insurance policies to undertake. However one other set of his complaints centered on the intractable difficulties concerned in acquiring really goal data from survey strategies in any respect. By now it was well-known that the character of sampling, the wording of questions, the sorts of solutions that respondents have been allowed to supply and the strategies of tabulating them have been all able to introducing errors or producing deceptive outcomes.
Strategies may after all be tweaked and even improved (although it ought to be famous that Gallup and different pollsters went on to misjudge, by margins large and small, the elections of 1952, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2012 — hardly a proud report). At backside, although, Rogers’ critique wasn’t methodological. At a philosophical stage, he rejected the very concept that public opinion was measurable within the concrete manner that the pollsters alleged. Public opinion was too inchoate to lend itself to specific measurement, even when fine-tuned with open-ended questions, scales of depth and different methodological tweaks that had been launched through the years. Public opinion, he stated, wasn’t like distance or mass or different scientifically measurable phenomena; it had no freestanding existence aside from the operation of measuring it. Polling thus pretended to quantify the unquantifiable. Like others within the more and more data-driven social sciences, Rogers charged, the general public opinion analysts have been following false gods of methodology. Correctly understanding the general public required not pseudo-scientific strategies however human perception.
Together with many others, Gallup pushed again in opposition to Lindsay, calling him “the final of the arm-chair philosophers on this discipline.” And whereas Gallup’s title, owing to his profitable polling enterprise, endured by the many years, Rogers’ light into relative obscurity. Political science turned inexorably extra quantitative and data-driven, forsaking his considerations about its pretensions to scientific standing. Furthermore, the earnings that industrial pollsters reaped — alongside, maybe, Gallup-like hopes of enhancing democracy — ensured that the apply of election-season survey-taking wouldn’t subside anytime quickly. Over time, critics from each the world of journalism (columnist Mike Royko, polemicist Christopher Hitchens) and academia (political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg, journalism historian W. Joseph Campbell) have saved alive Rogers’ skepticism, however on the entire Individuals have continued to be seduced each election season by the pollsters’ attract.
Maybe in gentle of two successive flameouts by at present’s George Gallups, Lindsay Rogers’ arguments concerning the impossibility of measuring public opinion with scientific precision ought to get a brand new listening to.
Within the post-mortems after the shocker of 2016, there have been complaints about flawed fashions and technical changes; some pollsters defended themselves by stating their slim requires Hillary Clinton have been inside the margin of error. In 2020, with the pre-election polling in Florida and different contested states to date off the mark — and with outlandish current outcomes like Wisconsin +17 for Biden reported by even A-rated companies — there are cries that one thing deeper has gone improper, that polling is now one way or the other damaged, due to know-how, or strategies, or present politics.
However Lindsay Rogers may need had a extra basic critique than that: The concept of political polling was damaged to begin with. It was a falsely scientific strategy to put numbers on an idea that may’t be measured within the first place, and which modifications form each time you strive. And certainly, it’s the very elusiveness of political opinion — its resistance to being pinned down — that makes democracy obligatory. Once we measure mass or distance, we all know we are able to achieve this precisely. However our values, attitudes and opinions should not concrete however fluid. They modify with time — within the days and weeks earlier than an election, in addition to within the years in between them. Which is exactly why democracy requires that each few years, we vote anew.