IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Groundbreaking pollster George Gallup is known for founding the survey organization that tracks the nation’s opinion of the president, but he began his career with a more local concern: getting his mother-in-law elected to statewide office.
Ola Babcock Miller was a longshot in the 1932 race for Iowa Secretary of State. No woman had been elected to the office, and neither had a Democrat in 76 years. But Miller had a secret weapon.
Gallup, an advertising executive, conducted an informal poll of voters and learned that highway safety was a top concern, said his granddaughter, Alison Gallup. Miller ran on that issue, won a close race and founded what would become the Iowa State Patrol. The election changed Gallup’s life too: It got him hooked on political polling, the field that would make him a household name.
The campaign is recounted in a collection of papers that Gallup’s family donated recently to the University of Iowa documenting the life of the father of modern political polling. The more than 200 boxes of papers now being sorted by librarians are expected to be studied by researchers seeking an intimate glimpse into the earliest polling for elections, advertising and Hollywood.
“It shows the trial and error and the birth of the science of survey research. In that sense, for social scientists, it’s absolutely significant. It’s the foundation of their work,” said Alison Gallup, 52, a graphic designer in Tennessee. “He was a true pioneer.”
Early surveys, tabulation results and correspondence are part of the collection at the university, where Gallup became interested in public opinion as editor of The Daily Iowan student newspaper and a graduate student who researched newspaper readers’ preferences.
Gallup promised to give his papers to the university before he died in 1984, but formal arrangements weren’t made. His son, pollster George Gallup Jr., organized the papers while writing an unpublished biography of his father before his own death last year. When Gallup’s grandchildren decided to donate the collection, they knew it had to go to Iowa because Gallup had championed the university and considered it the birthplace of his work, Alison Gallup said.
Gallup earned three degrees — a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate — at Iowa before moving to New York City to work for an advertising agency in the 1930s. He became a leader in the field of market research and founded the American Institute of Public Opinion in 1935. It later became the Gallup Organization.
He came to prominence after his polling correctly predicted Franklin Delano Roosevelt would defeat Alfred Landon in the 1936 presidential race. Gallup had criticized the most popular poll at the time, the Literary Digest, saying it was skewed to the middle- and upper- classes because it drew names from phone lists, auto registration and rosters of membership clubs, Alison Gallup said.
In contrast, Gallup worked to get a representative sample from all classes. He predicted a Roosevelt victory, the Literary Digest predicted a Landon victory, and the nation got a lesson in sampling, his granddaughter said. Gallup continued to work throughout his career on how to ask questions that were not leading and how to design the best sample to obtain the most accurate results. He was driving by the idea that in a democracy, people should have their voice heard, she said.
The Gallup collection includes training manuals for field workers, who then asked questions in-person rather than by phone. Alison Gallup said her grandfather and his team would interview farmers in fields and residents at their homes.
Gallup branched out from politics, founding the Audience Research Institute to help Hollywood. The institute asked moviegoers whether they would be more likely to see films with certain titles and measured reactions to screenings. Gallup became close with studio powerhouses, including Walt Disney and Samuel Goldwyn.
Alison Gallup said her grandfather helped pick the title of the 1946 award-winning film, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” and worked on “Gone with the Wind” and other films. His research influenced everything from casts to release dates.
Gallup’s legacy lives on through the company he founded. His family sold the Gallup Organization to Selection Research after his death, but it continues to operate worldwide.
The Gallup Organization became a lightning rod for criticism this year after its polls showed Republican challenger Mitt Romney leading President Barack Obama until very late in the presidential campaign. Most other pollsters had Obama slightly ahead.
His papers show Gallup faced similar criticism early and often. They include scrapbooks of what Gallup’s family called “crank mail,” people who complained bitterly about polling results and accused him of trying to shape public opinion, not measure it. Campaign-style posters and buttons declared, “Gallup didn’t ask me, either.”
A dark hour for Gallup came in the 1948 election, when he incorrectly predicted that challenger Thomas Dewey would defeat President Harry Truman. Alison Gallup said that her grandfather stopped polling too early to detect a late shift toward Truman. He learned from the mistake and afterward always polled until the day before the election.
She said Gallup’s incorrect prediction led to a “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline made famous in a photograph of the victorious Truman holding up the newspaper.
Gallup claimed that a policeman who pulled him over for driving the wrong way soon after the election saw his license and quipped, “Wrong again, Dr. Gallup,” his granddaughter recalled. But Gallup survived the humiliation and a congressional investigation and continued his work.
Greg Prickman, who oversees the university’s special collections, said this one documents an important field in American history.
“Polling is a part of our lives and has been for many years now. I think it will always be a source of interest and fascination for people,” he said. “I think we will get interest in the collection for that reason. People will be curious about, how did we get to this place? What was it like before the Internet and how did this develop?”
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