George Gallup (1901-1984) - 9 November 1984

If I were to ask you what is the favourite drink of the British, the French, the Russians, I doubt that many people would hesitate to say beer, wine, vodka.

Suppose we go on to ask how many Americans in any given year pack the baseball stadiums, as compared with the numbers who go to symphony concerts? Some canny people might pause a while, but not, I should think, for long. The answer to that one is three times as many Americans go to the symphony as go to baseball.

Here is a final quiz, which is the more powerful labour union, as a voting block: the steel workers or, say, the hairdressers? Any serious, what we used to call well-informed, would surely plump for the steel workers who, at the beginning of any national election campaign are heard from by way of rallies, propaganda pamphlets and an early endorsement for the man they believe, or hope, will do most for the steel workers. Well again, the true answer is that there are, I think at last count, about 200,000 steel workers. There are, on the other hand, a million or two hairdressers.

The best, the most thoughtful, answer certainly, to any of the above questions would be, "I don’t know," but all of us from childhood on imitate our parents and teachers in one human habit – we come to believe that the process of growing up entails having fairly strong, or set, opinions about more and more things. The only people I know who seem to have no opinions at all – I don’t mean opinions about what is right or wrong but opinions about facts – are one or two scientists. I have known a couple of doctor specialists, come to mind, whose own experience with their scientific work has led them to see that the truth is not easily discovered, that each stage of discovering it can contradict an earlier stage. And that a conclusion, if they ever come to it, can be very surprising indeed.

And the rest of us, well, even in the few days since the presidential election I am sure you, wherever you are, have been showered by commentaries and what are called analysis of what happened and why. I don’t know any newspaper writer or television commentator who has come out in public and said, "I don’t know". After all, one of the most tenacious things we have to hold on to, is our self respect, and a man without at least an interesting theory of what happened – whether he is a farmer or a businessman a shopkeeper or a university professor – is plainly a bonehead, or at best, a wishy-washy mind. For, in politics, as much as in any other department of life, I believe that the most eminent of American jurists, the late Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, put the whole thing in a nutshell when he said, "For most men, the truth is what they can’t help thinking must be true." So, this time I am not going to try and balance the weight of opinions or commentaries, or even give my own on the Reagan landslide – and this time it was a deafening landslide, the second-largest electoral majority in American history, a popular majority surpassed only twice before.

I want to talk about a man, who, I think, has been more responsible than any other human being for a revolutionary change in the democratic process, and in how governments arrive at their policies. That's a large sentence but he was a large man, who died last July. And I would have talked about him then if we had not been immersed in guessing and predicting and opining about the very facts whose discovery was his lifelong speciality. We are talking about public opinion, a phrase all of us have used, all our lives, most of us without ever asking if we can possibly know what it is.

Before I come to this giant, born in a small town on the Raccoon River, in Iowa, 83 years ago, I’d like to sketch our rather pitiful theories of what public opinion was before he came on the scene. And you’ll be relieved to hear we don’t need to go back to the Greeks, though I think it’s worth mentioning that of all the ancients, Plato managed to evade the whole problem by saying that whatever public opinion was, it was of no value.

I should say that for many centuries public opinion was what learned men and merchants and politicians expressed as their opinion. Nobody had any way of measuring what the whole population felt, you waited for the results of debates between the ruling bodies, or for popular uprisings, to know what was troubling people most. And for the mass of us, the church, the philosophers or the king or the government in power decided what was best for us.

We have to come to our own century before we begin to take a rather fragile hold on public opinion. Advertising companies grew up to tell you what you wanted to buy and why. And then a little later, some bright minds decided to find out if that's what you really wanted, a scented soap or a teddy bear, and sent out men to tap people from door to door, to see if they would rather have a non-scented soap, and a gollywog.

I ought to throw in here that in the 1930s the dictatorships were the first to use the persuasive forms of advertising in radio to tell people what they ought to think and why it was good for them, and the country. Well, what we are moving into is what came to be known as marketing research. There was a sharpened, memorable example of this, I believe, sometime in the early '30s which showed that people are not moved to buy this or that by rational choice, but might be moved by instinctive impulses they know nothing about.

That time was the heyday of a psychological school called behaviourism, and its guru was a man named John B Watson. He did an experiment for a cigarette company with results that confounded and delighted his client. This particular brand of cigarettes had its brand name printed on a green circle bang in the middle of the packet. Dr Watson, if you’ll excuse the expression, had an idea.

He persuaded the company to manufacture a run of its cigarettes in which the brand name was printed on a red circle. The sales went soaring. Then the company reverted to the green circle and the sales plummeted. They went back, once for all, to the red circle and a prosperous life.

It was about this time that one or two men, notably one Thurstone and Guttman started doing interviews with people and testing random observations of the way people behaved, and that was a small step towards the notion of finding out how people, most people, felt about public matters. In 1936, three organisations started what was called "polling" the people in the presidential campaign.

A well-known literary magazine decided to do this in style. The Literary Digest sent out through the mail ten million ballots asking people how they were going to vote in the presidential election. They got back over two and a quarter million and confidently predicted that one Alf Landon would defeat Franklin Roosevelt. In the result Roosevelt swamped Landon by 523 electoral votes to eight – that's the record – and the Literary Digest, not just its poll, went out of business. The big flaw in their method was to go on the verdict of people who troubled to return the ballots.

And other pollsters who had almost equally shaky beginnings called people on the telephone which meant, at best, you got the opinion of people who could afford a telephone. Which brings us to the man from Iowa, George Horace Gallup, son of a land speculator in a small Iowa railroad town.

The son went to an Iowa college and when his father failed in business, young George made his way through college by working in the gymnasium. He picked up three degrees, his doctorate was on how to measure a magazine's readership. He taught journalism for a while, till he discovered that you can’t teach journalism, came to New York and went into marketing research for an advertising company, and, in 1935, he set up something grandly called the American Institute of Public Opinion.

His aim was to measure public attitudes on social, political and economic issues. He correctly predicted the Roosevelt landslide, though not by the exact margin. He set up counterparts of the institute in London and Paris and, later, in Canada, Australia and Sweden. There were complaints then and later, that the questions were loaded, or required a firm yes or no. But they came to be refined and with the great advance in statistical methods in the '40s and the '50s, Gallup replied to people who argued that polls were beginning to control the leaders, "You might as well insist that a barometer makes the weather".

Even even to this day there are people who say how can you possibly gauge the balance of public opinion by sampling say, 2,000 people out of 200 million? Many years ago, I remember the late Dr Alfred Kinsey boasting that soon we shall we be able to talk to a sailor in Time Square, a businessman in Memphis, a housewife in New Orleans, a farmer in Oregon, and tell you what most Americans think.

Well we are not not quite there, but the statistical sample has been developed to be a pretty accurate scientific measure of the balance of opinion, feeling and prejudice across the country. So much so that, for better or worse, most candidates for public office now have their own pollsters privately finding out what is on people’s minds, which issue is popular, what ought not to be brought up, with invaluable effects on a candidate’s campaign, his speeches, his principals, if any.

Gallup refused all his life to do any private polling for hire. He also refused all invitations to the White House. "I deliberately stayed away," he said, "because you can’t go there without being like Caesar's wife, under suspicion." At the end, he regarded his life work as a mere beginning. "My God," he said, "there are four billion guinea pigs in this world, each of them with two goals – to live a long life and a happy one. Both goals are researchable."

But in the meantime what he had done, as the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere put it, was to change the perceptions that people had between what the public thought and what governments did. He claimed to be nothing but a statistician, but it was a proud claim. "In the beginning," he said, "I could prove God statistically. Take the human body alone – the chance that all the organic functions of an individual just happened is a statistical monstrosity."

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