The 1936 presidential election proved a decisive battle, not only in shaping the nation’s political future but for the future of opinion polling. The Literary Digest, the venerable magazine founded in 1890, had correctly predicted the outcomes of the 1916, 1920, 1924, 1928, and 1932 elections by conducting polls. These polls were a lucrative venture for the magazine: readers liked them; newspapers played them up; and each “ballot” included a subscription blank. The 1936 postal card poll claimed to have asked one fourth of the nation’s voters which candidate they intended to vote for. In Literary Digest's October 31 issue, based on more than 2,000,000 returned post cards, it issued its prediction: Republican presidential candidate Alfred Landon would win 57 percent of the popular vote and 370 electoral votes.
Landon, 1,293,669; Roosevelt, 972,897
Final Returns in the Digest’s Poll of Ten Million Voters
Well, the great battle of the ballots in the poll of 10 million voters, scattered throughout the forty-eight states of the Union, is now finished, and in the table below we record the figures received up to the hour of going to press.
These figures are exactly as received from more than one in every five voters polled in our country—they are neither weighted, adjusted, nor interpreted.
Never before in an experience covering more than a quarter of a century in taking polls have we received so many different varieties of criticism—praise from many and condemnation from many others—and yet it has been just of the same type that has come to us every time a Poll has been taken in all these years.
A telegram from a newspaper in California asks: "Is it true that Mr. Hearst has purchased The Literary Digest?“ A telephone message only the day before these lines were written: ”Has the Republican National Committee purchased The Literary Digest?“ And all types and varieties, including: ”Have the Jews purchased The Literary Digest?" "ls the Pope of Rome a stockholder of The Literary Digest?" And so it goes—all equally absurd and amusing. We could add more to this list, and yet all of these questions in recent days are but repetitions of what we have been experiencing all own the years from the very first Poll.
Problem—Now, are the figures in this poll correct? In answer to this question we will simply refer to a telegram we sent to a young man in Massachusetts the other day answer to his challenge to us to wager 100,000 on the accuracy of our Poll. We wired him as follows:
For nearly a quarter century, we have been taking Polls of the voters in the forty-eight States, and especially in Presidential years, and we have always merely mailed the ballots, counted and recorded those returned and let the people of the Nation draw their conclusions as to our accuracy. So far, we have been right in every Poll. Will we be right in the current Poll? That, as Mrs. Roosevelt said concerning the President’s reelection, is in the “lap of the gods.”
We never make any claims before election but we respectfully refer you to the opinion of one of the most quoted citizens today, the Hon. James A. Farley, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. This is what Mr. Farley said October 14, 1932:
"Any sane person cannot escape the implication of such a gigantic sampling of popular opinion as is embraced in The Literary Digest straw vote. I consider this conclusive evidence as to the desire of the people of this country for a change in the National Government. The Literary Digest poll is an achievement of no little magnitude. It is a Poll fairly and correctly conducted."
In studying the table of the voters from of the States printed below, please remember that we make no claims at this time for their absolute accuracy. On a similar occasion we felt it important to say:
In a wild year like this, however, many sagacious observers will refuse to bank upon appearances, however convincing. As for The Digest, it draws no conclusions from the results of its vast distribution of twenty million ballots. True to its historic non-partizan policy—or “omni-partizan,” as some editor described it in 1928—we supply our readers with the facts to the best of our ability, and leave them to draw their own conclusions.
We make no claim to infallibility. We did not coin the phrase “uncanny accuracy” which has been so freely-applied to our Polls. We know only too well the limitations of every straw vote, however enormous the sample gathered, however scientific the method. It would be a miracle if every State of the forty-eight behaved on Election day exactly as forecast by the Poll.
We say now about Rhode Island and Massachusetts that our figures indicate in our own judgment too large a percentage for Mr. Landon and too small a percentage for Mr. Roosevelt, and although in 1932 the figures in these two States indicated Mr. Hoover’s carrying both, we announced:
“A study of the returns convinces us that in those States our ballots have somehow failed to come back in adequate quantity from large bodies of Democratic voters.”
Our own opinion was that they would be found in the Roosevelt column, and they were. We will not do the same this year; we feel that both States will be found in the Landon column, and we are reaching this conclusion by the same process that lead to the reverse conclusion in 1932.
Pennsylvania is another State which requires special mention. Four years ago, our figures gave the State to Mr. Roosevelt, and Mr. Hoover carried it on Election day. In comparing our ballot this year with that of 1932, we find that in many cities in Pennsylvania our figures showed a much higher trend toward Mr. Roosevelt than was justified by the election figures on Election day in 1932. In examining the very same cities now we discover the reverse trend, and in cities that in 1932 indicated an approximately 60–40 percent relationship between Roosevelt and Hoover, we now find 60 percent for Landon and 40 percent for Roosevelt.
That’s the plain language of it. Many people wonder at these great changes in a State like Pennsylvania, and we confess to wonderment ourselves.
On the Pacific Coast, we find California, Oregon, and Washington all vote for Mr. Landon in our Poll, and yet we are told that the Pacific Coast is “aflame” for Mr. Roosevelt.
A State like California is always a difficult State to get an accurate opinion from by the polling method, and we may be far astray, yet every one should remember that in the Gubernatorial campaign a few years ago, we took a Poll of California when it was believed by most of California citizens that Mr. Upton Sinclair would be elected Governor, and the result of our Poll showed that Mr. Sinclair would not be elected Governor and the Poll was correct.
The State of Washington seems to be more favorable to Mr. Landon than either Oregon or California. We cannot in our Poll detect anything that would indicate a reason for this difference.
Seattle—Right here we wish to say that in 1932 our Poll in Seattle gave Mr. Roosevelt 65.43 percent of the vote, and he carried that city by 61.58 percent of the vote. In the current Poll, 1936, Seattle gives Mr. Landon 58.52 percent and Mr. Roosevelt 40.46 percent. Our readers will notice we overestimated Mr. Roosevelt in 1932—are we overestimating Mr. Landon now? We see no reason for supposing so. And the three Pacific Coast States which now show for Mr. Landon and which millions believe will vote for Mr. Roosevelt (they may be right) in 1924, 1928, and 1932 were correctly forecast in The Literary Digest Polls.
In the great Empire State, New York the figures for so large a State are what might be called very close. After looking at the figures for New York in the column at the left, remember that in 1932 we gave Mr. Roosevelt 46.1 percent and Mr. Hoover 43.9 percent, even closer than it is to day. And yet we correctly forecast that Mr. Roosevelt would carry the State.
And so we might go on with many States that are very close, and some not so close, but in which local conditions have much to do with results, not in polls such as our Poll but on Election day.
The Poll represents the most extensive straw ballot in the field—the most experienced in view of its twenty-five years of perfecting—the most unbiased in view of its prestige—a Poll that has always previously been correct.
Even its critics admit its value as an index of popular sentiment. As one of these critics, the Nation, observes:
“Because it indicates both the 1932 and 1936 vote, it offers the raw material for as careful a prognostication as it is possible to make at this time.”
Source: Literary Digest, 31 October 1936.