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Evolution

The history of polling in the United States goes back to 1824, when two newspapers, the Harrisburg Pennsylvanian and the Raleigh Star, organized "show votes" to determine the political preferences of voters prior to the presidential election of that year. In 1883 the Boston Globe attempted to speed up its reporting of election returns by sending reporters to poll various precincts. By the turn of the century many newspapers were conducting polls to determine political preferences. Later polls were conducted by magazines; the first among them were the Farm Journal (1912) and the Literary Digest (1916). Those early polls were generally local or regional rather than national and were confined to obtaining election preferences rather than opinions on political issues. During World War I, however, a poll as to whether or not the United States should enter the war was conducted.

The methods used in the early polls made no claim to being scientific; polling was usually done by canvassers hired to go out and question people or by "straw ballots" in the newspapers, which readers were asked to fill out and mail in. A more scientific method of polling called sampling was developed in the mid-1930s. This method enables the polltaker to question a small percentage of the group whose opinions he wishes to ascertain and to analyze from their responses the opinions of the whole group. The superiority of this method over the old straw-ballot system was demonstrated in the 1936 presidential election when the Literary Digest poll, which based its predictions on the older technique, produced a staggeringly inaccurate forecast, while the poll of a newer group organized by George Gallup predicted the result of the election correctly. By the 1940s the polls were concerned with social and economic questions as well as with political issues. An unusual failure of polling took place in 1948 when the polling organizations predicted the defeat of Harry S. Truman, who won.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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