How the first ‘horse race’ poll changed American political history

FDR gives an address. The FDR Library , CC BY-SA

As each new candidate announces for the 2016 Republican nomination, Quinnapiac, Fox and other polling firms quickly size up the hopeful’s chances against Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee.

These horse-race presidential polls – in which candidates’ current electoral prospects are estimated scientifically – are an ever-present backdrop in election coverage nowadays.

Jeb Bush today becomes the eleventh declared Republican candidate. Already there have been many public polls assessing his chances against his party opponents as well as Secretary Clinton, and no doubt many private polls from the individual campaigns are being conducted.

It’s hard to imagine a presidential election season without polls. But the very first scientific horse race poll, which took place 80 years ago, was shrouded in secrecy and may have changed history – even though it was faulty.

A look back to the 1930s

In the spring of 1935, President Franklin D Roosevelt was worried about his reelection.

He was especially concerned about Louisiana Senator Huey Long, who had created a Share Our Wealth organization, purportedly with seven million members. It promoted a program so radical – extremely high taxes on the rich and stipends for all Americans – that it would make current Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders seem like a Republican. (I examine Long’s program and Roosevelt’s New Deal in my books Bold Relief and When Movements Matter.)

Huey Long. Wikipedia

Long and his organization were garnering media attention – “Candidate Long” appeared on the April 1 cover of Time – and a national following. Long also ruled his state’s government with semi-dictatorial might; he once deployed the National Guard to attempt to steal a New Orleans mayoral contest. He could use Louisiana resources to wage a campaign.

Though a Democrat, Long planned to run against Roosevelt as an independent. Long hoped to attract the followers of Father Charles Coughlin, the “radio priest” and Roosevelt critic who commanded ten million listeners, mainly in the Northeast, and Dr Francis Townsend of Long Beach, CA, whose Townsend Clubs were sweeping the West, demanding generous old-age pensions, and had attracted two million members.

Huey Long had a long-range scheme

Senator Long had no illusions that he would beat Roosevelt in 1936, but was playing a longer game.

His plan was to siphon enough votes from the left that Roosevelt would lose to the Republican nominee, whom most thought would be former president Herbert Hoover. Then Hoover would so foul up the economy that the Democrats and the electorate would have to turn to Long in 1940. In short, Long was trying to do to Roosevelt what Ralph Nader did to the Democratic nominee Al Gore in 2000, but on purpose.

Long wrote a book entitled “My First Days in the White House,” in which he described how his election would quickly lead to redistribution. But others feared that a President Long might also dispense with further elections, something that had happened recently in Germany.

That same year Sinclair Lewis published “It Can’t Happen Here,” a novel in which a candidate modeled on Long wins the presidency, dissolves Congress, and rules America with a paramilitary, SS-style force called the Minute Men.

A secretive polling method was devised

In April 1935, Democratic National Committee chief and Roosevelt campaign manager James Farley called on Emil Hurja, who had done some in-house polling for Farley in the 1934 congressional election cycle to ascertain Long’s potential as a spoiler. Hurja was a private stock analyst who was a self-taught pollster and used sampling principles to adjust the unscientific surveys taken by popular magazines.

Hurja devised sample ballot postcards asking whom the public would support in the upcoming election: President Roosevelt, an unnamed “Republican Candidate” or Senator Long.

To secure responses, Hurja pretended that a fictional crusading magazine, the then-nonexistent National Inquirer, sought to learn the public’s true feelings and transmit them to policymakers for immediate action. Hurja drew his sample from telephone listings and government “relief” rolls, and on April 30, 1935, he mailed out the first of an astounding number of ballots: 150,000.

The ballot postcards had prepaid postage; Farley was, helpfully, also Postmaster General. Over the next several weeks, 31,000 postcards were returned, making the totals about 10 times the typical Gallup three-day tracking poll of today. The idea was to estimate the vote in each state. Hurja compiled the results so slowly that Omaha had enough time to win the other two legs of the Triple Crown.

Results came in and dismay ensued

Once the ballots were in, the results were was shocking.

Although Hurja’s estimates gave Roosevelt 49% of the popular vote, with the Republican at 43% and Long at seven percent, the Electoral College totals were tight. Roosevelt had 305 electoral college votes out of 531, a 79-vote margin that was more reminiscent of Obama’s tense reelection than the landslide Nixon and Reagan reelections.

According to Hurja’s analysis, Long’s presence on the ballot would tip 122 electoral votes and several key states to the Republican, including Roosevelt’s New York. A swing of a few percentage points away from Roosevelt would flip tossup states like Iowa and Minnesota – and the election.

As if making good on the National Inquirer’s false promise of responsiveness, Roosevelt quickly tacked left in policy. He was already demanding the passage of the Social Security Act and a bill proposed by Senator Robert Wagner of New York to protect collective bargaining. But on June 19, 1935, Roosevelt suddenly and unexpectedly also called for “soak-the-rich” legislation that would tax extreme incomes at a stiff rate, raise inheritance taxes, and tax undistributed corporate dividends.
The legislation was designed to yield only about $400 million, which was not a lot relative to the budget even back then and the Social Security taxes were far higher. Still, the pattern of regressive taxation was broken – more progressive taxes would be adopted during the war – and as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr would later write the new proposal was designed to “steal Long’s thunder.”

For his part, Farley had doubts about this newfangled polling, relying on a different type of survey to ascertain who would win. He wrote to Democratic committeemen around the country and asked them how the election was shaping up in their districts.

The right response for the wrong reasons

For the wrong reasons, Farley’s mistrust was right, as the first horse race poll’s premises were faulty, and its results dubious.

Not naming a specific candidate inflated the Republican’s totals. Worse, using a very primitive “likely voter” model, Hurja completely discounted the ballots of the relief recipients, who were numerous and sharply in favor of Roosevelt, whereas richer Americans opposed him. Also, only the top 40% of Americans had phones. Moreover, experience has since has shown that third-party candidates do much better in polls than in elections.

Had all that been taken into account, the results would have indicated an easy Roosevelt victory.

Which is what Farley was predicting and what happened.

Alf Landon got the cover of Time but not the presidency. Wikipedia

The legislation of the “Second New Deal” had deflated Long and other Roosevelt critics. That summer Long was assassinated. The next year Father Coughlin, Dr. Townsend, and Long’s successor, Gerald L K Smith, rallied around the independent candidacy of William Lemke, but his Union Party ticket attracted less than a million votes.

Farley correctly predicted that Roosevelt’s ultimate Republican opponent, Governor Alf Landon of Kansas, would win only the states of Maine and Vermont.

In the meantime, new public pollsters were getting into the game. George Gallup and Elmo Roper used scientific sampling and did well in predicting Roosevelt’s landslide, especially in comparison to the unscientific but massive poll by the Literary Digest, a popular magazine that infamously predicted a Landon victory.

Polling yesterday and today

Nowadays there are so many polls that polling aggregators like Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com can predict elections with great accuracy. Aggregations of polling aggregators, now done at Vox, do even better – but only when Election Day draws near. Polls this far away from the election have to taken with, as Silver puts it, “tablespoons of salt.”

The first horse race poll helped to change policy at a critical moment, but may have also helped to discredit this sort of intelligence gathering by presidents.

Hurja left the administration in 1937 in a spat with Farley and in opposition to Roosevelt’s plan to “pack” the Supreme Court. Not until the election of John F. Kennedy were pollsters routinely employed again by the White House. And today when presidents or campaigns poll they seem more concerned with how to frame policies they already support than with responding to the concerns of the public.

No doubt Jeb Bush’s internal pollsters have been working nonstop to determine his chances against the other Republican candidates and how he can adjust his messaging and possibly his positions accordingly. According to a recent Quinnapiac poll, he is currently deadlocked with four other Republican hopefuls, and if the election for president were to be held today and Bush were facing Clinton, he would lose by 10 percentage points.

Meanwhile, public pollsters try to anticipate and assess the chances of the next Republican to throw his hat into the ring in order to tantalize the media to run the results and amuse the public, which seems more interested in such polls than actual horse races. According to a recent PPP poll, a hypothetical matchup has Clinton winning Ohio by only one percentage point over Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

We produce knowledge-based, ethical journalism. Please donate and help us thrive. Tax deductible.