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“President” Landon and the 1936 Literary Digest Poll

Were Automobile and Telephone Owners to Blame?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 January 2016

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Abstract

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The disastrous prediction of an Alf Landon victory in the 1936 presidential election by the Literary Digest poll is a landmark event in the history of American survey research in general and polling in particular. It marks both the demise of the straw poll, of which the Digest was the most conspicuous and well-regarded example, and the rise to prominence of the self-proclaimed “scientific” poll. Why did the Digest poll fail so miserably? One view has come to prevail over the years: because the Digest selected its sample primarily from telephone books and car registration lists and since these contained, at the time, mostly well-to-do folks who would vote Republican, it is no wonder the magazine mistakenly predicted a Republican win. This “conventional explanation” has found its way into countless publications (scholarly and in the press) and college courses. It has been used to illustrate the disastrous effects of a poorly designed poll. But is it correct? Empirical evidence, in the form of a 1937 Gallup poll, shows that this “conventional explanation” is wrong, because voters with telephones and cars backed Franklin D. Roosevelt and because it was those who failed to participate in the poll (overwhelmingly supporters of Roosevelt) who were mainly responsible for the faulty prediction.

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Copyright © Social Science History Association 2012

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