Reassessing public opinion polling in the Truman administration.

Author:Rottinghaus, Brandon
 
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Scholars have recently explored the origins of the institutionalization of public opinion polling in the administrative apparatus of the White House (see Jacobs and Shapiro 1995; Heith 1998; Eisinger and Brown 1998; Eisinger 2000). However, the development and utilization of public opinion polls by presidents has yet to be fully explicated, in part because of incomplete historical information on the presidential administration of Harry Truman. Truman remains an aberration in the development of presidential polling, using fewer polls than Franklin Roosevelt and presidents who served subsequent to Truman. However, Truman's presidency perpetuated and advanced the polling apparatus, given new evidence showing poll consultation in the Truman administration.

Presidential scholars (Brace and Hinckley 1992; Kemell 1986; Cornwell 1965), scholars of public opinion (Heith 1998; Geer 1996;Jacobs and Shapiro 1995; Herbst 1993;Jacobs 1993, 1992), and historians of President Truman (Hamby 1995; Heller 1980) all concede that the Truman administration did not have much interest in public opinion polling. Truman himself is also often quoted as negatively referring to polling and pollsters and disavowing the usefulness and accuracy of polls. As a revision to these claims, uncovered archival work shows that the Truman administration was concerned with public opinion polling and did consult polling on selected issues, both in the White House and during the 1948 election.

Truman's View of Public Opinion Polling

Truman's public position on opinion polls was very clear. He did not put much stock in the polls, the pollsters who developed them, or the politicians who obsessed over them. Truman was openly critical of these polls and pollsters for a variety of reasons. The fluctuation of Gallup's presidential approval polls (from a height of 80 percent to a depth of 23 percent) over the course of Truman's presidency combined with Gallup's famous failed prediction of the president's defeat to Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election convinced Truman that polling was unreliable, ineffective, and capricious. Truman wrote in his memoirs,

I never paid any attention to the polls myself, because in my judgment they did not represent a true cross section of American opinion. I did not believe that the major components of our society, such as agriculture, management, and labor, were accurately sampled. I also know that the polls did not represent facts but mere speculation, and I have always placed my faith in the known facts. (Truman 1956) In an unsent letter addressed to Elmo Roper responding to Roper's postelection poll results dated December 30, 1948, Truman writes, (1)

It [Roper's report] is interesting, but it still misses the main point. Candidates make election contests, not pole [sic] takers of press comments by paid column writers. Edited news columns and misleading headlines have some effect--not much. People in general have lost faith in the modern press and its policies. That is a good thing too. No one segment should be able to control public opinion. Leadership still counts. Truman's opinion on polls is consistent with his definition of leadership. Truman is often quoted as saying,

I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he'd taken a poll in Egypt? What would Jesus Christ have preached if he'd taken a poll in Israel? Where would the Reformation have gone if Martin Luther had taken a poll? It isn't polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It is right and wrong, and leadership--men with fortitude, honesty and a belief in the right that makes epochs in the history of the world. (Hamby 1995) Based on these public and private assertions from Truman, it seems he was a president who led an administration that did not rely on public opinion polls on any level.

The Archival Data

To assess the Truman administration's poll usage for this article, an attempt was made to view all documents at the Truman Library relating to public opinion polling during Truman's tenure as president (from 1945 to 1953). These documents include poll results from a variety of sources, memos detailing the utilization of public opinion polling in any form, and handwritten notes documenting the flow of material to and from individuals in the White House concerning polling. Oral history interviews conducted with members of the White House staff and other individuals connected to Truman were also surveyed for references to public opinion and public opinion polling.

Papers of key individuals who served as administrative secretaries, press department officials, policy advisers, or department secretaries were systematically selected for review with the assumption that these individuals would be the most likely to use public opinion polling data and would have access to these data. General papers of the president were also surveyed for evidence of public opinion polling, including the White House Central Files, the White House Official File, the President's Personal File, Public Opinion Mail, and the White House Telegraph Office Files as well as the papers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

A counting technique created by Heith (1998) was employed to aggregate the total number of polling memos and private polls uncovered in the papers of the Truman administration and to demonstrate the depth and degree of poll consultation. To be counted as a "polling memo," a memorandum "could refer to a public poll, cite...

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