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Life Before Polls: Ohio Politicians Predict the 1828 Presidential Vote

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 September 2013

Samuel Kernell*
University of California, San Diego


Candidates covet votes. They exert extraordinary effort and expend vast resources seeking to win as many votes as possible. Yet, the costly pursuit of votes occurs under great uncertainty concerning both the strategic correctness of their positions on issues and the efficiency of their campaigns. Of course, prudent candidates dedicate some resources to learning how voters are responding to their appeals, generally by commissioning polls of public opinion.

Candidates' early adoption of scientific survey technology (Converse 1987) and the important role polls play in modern campaigns invite the question of how candidates ever got on without them. Before polls, did public opinion reside on a vast terra incognita on which candidates staked out issue positions oblivious to the whereabouts of the median voter? If so, campaigns must have been riddled with mistakes and inefficiency. John G. Greer (1991) made just this argument in claiming that the absence of accurate information about shifts in the electorate's preferences allowed political parties to be blindsided by what became realigning elections.

The historical record offers few clues as to the extent to which nineteenth-century candidates labored under strategic ignorance. Yet, accounts of politicos and pundits alike tallying newspaper endorsements and carefully gauging attendance at campaign rallies do survive. However questionable these indicators' validity, even to contemporaries, they represented some of the few quantifiable barometers of voter sentiment available to that era's politicians. Some candidates kept “their ear to the ground” (a nineteenth-century dictum) by engaging in more active forms of voter research.

Research Article
Copyright © The American Political Science Association 2000

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