Who was George Gallup?

At that time, it was my great privilege to have Dr George Gallup as my examiner for my PhD which was a scientific R&D project looking into the subject of ‘selling’.

That was in New York in 1980. The project was successful and Dr Gallup wrote in his assessment that “Michael’s Newsell approach may be the first new strategy for selling in 50 years”.

George H. Gallup, Founder | 1901-1984


Most people have heard of the Gallup Poll but few know much about its founder who was also the inventor of market research.

Today, Jim Clifton, Chairman of Gallup says:

Gallup delivers analytics and advice to help leaders and organizations solve their most pressing problems. Combining more than 80 years of experience with its global reach, Gallup knows more about the attitudes and behaviors of employees, customers, students and citizens than any other organization in the world.

But how did it all get started?

In the 1939s in the USA Gallup called his polling company the American Institute of Public Opinion and billed the Gallup Poll as a reliable index of the voters’ mood. Much of the political establishment just laughed at him. After all, his “Institute” was just a tiny office above the Woolworth’s on Nassau Street.

The election of ’36 propelled the Gallup Poll into prominence that would see it become a vital force in political culture. For the next 60 years, it remained the most popular newspaper poll in the world. No election, no policy debate was complete without its percentages.

Public opinion polling organizations affiliated with the Gallup Poll were set up in Britain and dozens of other foreign countries; in some European languages the verb ”to poll” became ”to do a Gallup.”

In presiding over his manifold activities, Dr. Gallup cut a dynamic and vigorous figure until he was well into his 70’s. He had much nervous energy, he could be highly affable and he had a forceful, plain, Middle Western way of speaking that bespoke his Iowan origins.

Winston Churchill would complain: “Nothing is more dangerous than to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup Poll, always taking one’s temperature.”

But to Gallup, polling was useful precisely because it did read democracy’s temperature.

George Horace Gallup Jr. was born Nov. 18, 1901, in the heartland of America — a small town called Jefferson, Iowa.

From a young age, he was instilled with a sense of democracy based on the sturdy, self-sufficient farmer. When he was 9, in fact, his father entrusted him with a herd of dairy cows to earn his own spending money. Later, young George worked his way through the University of Iowa.

As editor of the student newspaper, Gallup loved to stir things up — even in the quiescent ’20s. “Doubt everything,” he wrote in one editorial. “Question everything. Be a radical!”

Gallup earned a PhD in journalism, which he promptly put to work in the most practical way by doing surveys of the Des Moines newspaper market. Editors assumed that their readers read all the front-page stories. Gallup found out the readers rarely did — preferring comics, pictures and bright features.

His work got him noticed by Young and Rubicam, the big New York ad agency, and in 1933, Gallup headed east to take over their market-research department. For a home, he picked a rambling white farmhouse off Great Road in Blawenburg, N.J., complete with working dairy farm.

At the family dinner table with his wife, Ophelia, and their three children, Gallup engaged in provocative, mind-stretching conversation.

“We were like guinea pigs for his ideas about polling,” said his son, George Gallup III. “He’d poll us. Do you like dogs or cats better? What kind of cereal?”

The dinner-table talk, together with his long commutes to Manhattan, gave the elder Gallup time to think. One of his thoughts: If market research works to sell toothpaste, why not politics?

And so, in September 1935, the Gallup Poll was born.

The ad man had always been a journalist at heart, and he thought of his political poll as a dynamite newspaper item. After he set up the headquarters of the Institute of Public Opinion at 114 Nassau St., he enlisted more than 20 papers across the country to buy his poll results as a syndicated feature.

The poll, first published Oct. 20, had a grand title: “America Speaks.” Its first question, in these pits of the Great Depression, was: “Do you think expenditures by the government for relief or recovery are too little, too great or just about right?” Sixty percent said “too great.”

Gallup would conduct biweekly polls of a sample of perhaps 2,000 people — each one chosen, in the time-tested manner of market research, to represent a larger group, including all classes, races and regions.

And instead of relying on mail-in ballots, Gallup would send pollsters to talk to people in person — at work, on home or on the street.

By bringing out the voice of the “average voter,” Gallup never wavered in believing he was serving the Republic.

“When a president, or any other leader, pays attention to poll results, he is, in effect, paying attention to the views of the people,” Gallup said.

Gallup was too inquisitive to just write about politics, though. As early as 1936, he was asking people if a woman should have a career if her husband has enough money to support her. Only 18 percent said yes.

Public-opinion polling has actually been a money-loser for Gallup throughout its history. George Gallup made his money — millions of it — from corporate clients by researching the effectiveness of ad campaigns and finding out who watches certain TV shows. But it was the polls that made him famous, and controversial.

In 1948, Gallup blew it. His surveys consistently showed President Harry S. Truman behind challenger Thomas Dewey, so Gallup announced the result was a foregone conclusion and stopped polling two weeks before the election.

Truman won. The day after the election, the president laughingly waved a Chicago Tribune headline that mistakenly said “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” — taunting all the wise guys who thought he would lose.

Glum after his ’48 debacle, Gallup announced: “We are continually experimenting and continually learning.” Lesson No. 1 was to keep polling, right up to Election Day, and the Gallup Poll has never gotten a presidential election wrong since.

In 1984, George Gallup died of a heart attack while staying in his summer home in Switzerland.

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