Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections is the story of polling flops, epic upsets, unforeseen landslides, and exit poll fiascoes in American presidential elections. It is now out from University of California Press.
Here are FAQs about Lost in a Gallup, the seventh solo-authored book by W. Joseph Campbell.
Q: Clever title, Lost in a Gallup: what’s it about?
Lost in a Gallup is a lively assessment of polling failures in U.S. presidential elections, from 1936 to 2016. These include the “Dewey defeats Truman” election of 1948, when polls dramatically misfired in predicting Thomas Dewey’s easy victory over President Harry Truman.
And the book takes up several other cases, such as the landslide that pollsters failed to anticipate in 1952, the close election that failed to happen in 1980, and the exit poll failures of 2004. And, of course, the failed predictions, based on polling data, that Hillary Clinton would easily win the presidency in 2016.
The book’s title, by the way, is derived from an observation about the 1948 election and polling by George Gallup, which predicted that Truman would lose to Dewey. Truman won the election by 4.5 percentage points and was said to be “the first president to lose in a Gallup and win in a walk.”
Lost in a Gallup has a strong media component, too. The book emphasizes that polling failure is often journalistic failure.
Q: What does that mean, “polling failure is often journalistic failure”?
Journalists invariably take their lead from polls in covering presidential election campaigns. Polls drive, influence, and help fix media narratives about presidential elections. They are central to how journalists, and Americans at large, understand a campaign’s ebb and flow.
They are critical to shaping conventional wisdom about the competitiveness of those races. When polls fail or misfire, media narratives about the election often are in error as well.
Q: So why write a book about polling failure in presidential elections?
Polling’s checkered record in U.S. presidential elections since 1936 has rarely been considered in detail, and has never been addressed collectively. This history is not well known. The American public is mostly oblivious to the catalog of polling miscalls and error that reaches back more than 80 years.
Q: So polling failure happens all time?
Lost in a Gallup makes the point that not all presidential elections are marred by polling failure. Epic fiascoes like the “Dewey defeats Truman” election are rare.
Polling failure does not spring from a single template.
Indeed, polls can go wrong in many ways: Pollsters have anticipated tight elections when landslides occurred. They have indicated the wrong winner in closer elections. Exit polling has thrown Election Day into confusion, as in 2004. The work of venerable pollsters has been singularly and memorably in error. State polls have confounded expected national outcomes, which essentially was the story in 2016.
Election polls are not prophesies, and they certainly are not beyond challenge.
Q: What other insights are there in Lost in a Gallup?
The book presents fresh detail about prominent early figures in election polling, such as Gallup, who began publishing his surveys in 1935 and thereafter became the best-known pollster in the United States, and perhaps even abroad. He was called the “Babe Ruth” of opinion research. The conventional view of Gallup is that he was likable and well-meaning — a kindly patriarch. But as Lost in a Gallup points out, he could be abrasive and was known to assail his critics publicly and harshly.
Lost in a Gallup also describes how poll-bashing used to be quite pronounced among prominent journalists, some of whom resented the presumption that polling could measure or interpret what the public was thinking. For example, Eric Sevareid, a prominent CBS News commentator, once wrote of “a secret glee and relief when the polls go wrong” because people “hate to have the mystery and suspense of human behavior eliminated by clinical dissection” in opinion polls.
Q: These poll-bashing journalists — who were they?
Among others, they included prominent, big-city newspaper columnists such as Mike Royko in Chicago and Jimmy Breslin in New York. They could turn caustic in writing about polls and pollsters.
Royko once said a pollster was “a hired brain-picker trying to figure out what your personal fears, hopes or prejudices are, so that he can advise a politician how to more skillfully lie to you.” He encouraged people who participated in polls to lie in their responses, as a way to throw off polling results. It was a naïve view, but indicative of Royko’s deep dislike of polling.
During the 2004 campaign, Jimmy Breslin dismissed pre-election polls as “cheap, meaningless blatant lies” principally because they did not then reach the growing number of cell phone-only households (they do nowadays). “Anybody who believes these national political polls are giving you facts is a gullible fool,” Breslin wrote in his widely read column in Newsday.
And for many years, Arianna Huffington — the founder of Huffington Post — carried on a poll-bashing campaign, a crusade she said was intended “to get the dominance of polling out of our political life.” She claimed that polls had come to be regarded by “media mavens … as if Moses just brought them down from the mountaintop.”
Overt poll-bashing has mostly disappeared from American news media. The election of 2004 was probably the pinnacle, when Breslin warred openly against election polls.
Lost in a Gallup is not a poll-bashing book, by the way.
Q: What does the book have to say about the 2020 election?
Lost in a Gallup touches briefly on 2020, saying it’s not unreasonable to anticipate a polling surprise or dispute of some kind. After all, few presidential elections have been without a polling controversy or two.
Polls are not always in error but when they fail, they can fail in surprising ways. Just as no two presidential elections are precisely alike, no two polling failures are quite the same.