Public opinion polling has transformed 20th-century America’s political institutions and democratic culture, creating a national market for political ideas and providing the infrastructure for measuring and mobilizing national sentiment, according to two political scientists who studied seven decades of polling history, starting with the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
From surveying the agricultural economy or troop morale to plan and hone public policy to monitoring public approval or testing media messages, polls have evolved into essential and increasingly accepted tools for governing in both the executive and legislative branches, write Amy Fried of the University of Maine and Douglas Harris of Loyola University Maryland in the journal The Historian.
“Over time, the uses and successes of polling were applied to such an extent that both White House and Congress (albeit later) came to use them outside of a focused election season and thus saw campaigning as ‘permanent,’” say Fried and Harris. “Despite proclamations about the lack of importance of polls, contemporary politicians in both branches employ them to forward their policy agendas, shape their public images, undermine opponents and sell their preferred alternatives.”
The researchers studied the migration of polls from private sector marketing and advertising firms to government agencies and the executive branch, and then to Congress in the final decades of the 20th century — ultimately becoming a ubiquitous tool due as much to the professional development of polling techniques as it did the political value of the data compiled.
The growing use of polls by executive offices and administrative agencies was part of a larger pattern contributing to the building of the American state, a project begun in the Progressive era that gained momentum during the New Deal and World War II, according to Fried and Harris. The later adoption of polls by Congress was part of a shift toward plebiscitary or referendum-like politics that also had its roots in the Progressive movement.
From the FDR administration to the end of the 20th century, the increased legitimacy of polling made public opinion itself more “real” and legitimate, say Fried and Harris.
Originally published in UMaine Today Magazine, Fall 2010