The Literary Digest Polling
By Ken Zurski
In 1920, starting with the election of President Warren G. Harding, a weekly magazine called The Literary Digest correctly picked the winner of each subsequent presidential election up to and including Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decisive victory over Herbert Hoover in 1932.
The Literary Digest, founded by two Lutheran ministers in 1890, culled articles from other publications and provided readers with insightful analysis and opinions on the day’s events. Eventually, as the subscriber list grew, the magazine created its own response-based surveys, or polling, as it is known today.
The presidential races were the perfect example of this system working.
So in 1936, with a subscriber base of 10 million and a solid track record, the Digest was ready to declare the next president: “Once again, [we are] asking more than ten million voters — one out of four, representing every county in the United States — to settle November’s election in October,” they bragged.
When the tallies were in, the Digest polls showed Republican Alfred Landon beating incumbent Roosevelt 57-percent to 43-percent. This was a surprise to many who thought Landon didn’t stand a chance.
Roosevelt was a progressive Democrat whose New Deal policies, like the Social Security Act and Public Pension Act, passed through Congress with mostly bipartisan support. Soon, millions of Americans burdened by the Great Depression would receive federal assistance.
Landon, a moderate, admired Roosevelt but felt he was soft on business and yielded too much presidential power. “I will not promise the moon,” he exclaimed during a campaign speech and warned against raising payroll taxes to pay for benefits. It didn’t work. Roosevelt won all but two states, Maine and Vermont, and sailed to a second term with 60-percent of the popular vote. Even Landon’s hometown state of Kansas, where he had been Governor since 1933, went with the President. In the end, Landon’s 8 electoral votes to Roosevelt’s 532 – or 98-percent – made it the most lopsided general election in history.
In hindsight, poor sampling was blamed for the Digest’s erroneous choice. Not only were subscribers mostly middle to upper class, but only a little over two of the ten million samples were returned, skewing the result.
The big winner, however, besides Roosevelt, was George Gallup, the son of an Iowa dairy farmer and eventual newspaperman, whose upstart polling company American Institute of Public Opinion correctly chose the President over Landon to within 1 percent of the actual margin of victory.
In 1948, the validity of public opinion polls would be questioned again when Gallup incorrectly picked Thomas Dewey to beat Roosevelt’s successor by death, Harry S.Truman.
Since it was widely considered Truman would lose his reelection bid to a full term, Gallup survived the scrutiny.
Even the Chicago Tribune got it wrong, claiming a Dewey presidency was “inevitable,” and printing an early edition with the now infamous headline of “Dewey Defeats Truman.” A humiliation that Truman mocked the next day.
The Literary Digest, however, had no say in the matter.
After the embarrassment In 1938, the magazine merged with another review publication and stopped polling subscribers.