This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
During the campaign a series of polls was conducted for Hughes by the firm of John F. Kraft, Inc. At the time of the primary, Kraft found, few people knew anything about Hughes, and Mitchell was well in the lead. This poll was not released. In July another Kraft poll showed Mitchell to be in an even stronger position. The July figures were obtained in some manner by the Mitchell forces, who made sure the press was informed of them. This confirmed the journalists in their “underdog” view of Hughes—which they clung to until the election.
But here was their error. In September another poll showed that Hughes was catching up fast. Wishing to counteract the effect of the release of the July poll, the Democrats released this new information. When October interviewing showed a continuing movement toward Hughes, this information, without specific figures, was also made available to the press. But nobody was listening. Many reporters had apparently made up their minds that Mitchell was the strong favorite and shrugged off the later poll material as propaganda.
There may conceivably be journalists who deliberately create an impression that such-and-such an election is going such-and-such a way; there are certainly politicians and some poll-takers who adopt that technique. But the more frequent case is that the press uses an approach to elections shot through with all the flaws of impressionistic thinking when more scientific and reliable approaches are available.
I am aware of the press’s problems—not all of which opinion research can solve by any means. Deadlines must be met and articles written. When toward the end of a campaign a newspaperman is eager to write an authoritative, enlightening, and stimulating story, to hear from a pollster that “it’s a toss-up” must be dispiriting indeed. The pressures to predict are strong, as any pollster knows.
A preference for certainty over doubt, for the plausible over the proved, for drama over accuracy, for hunch and intuition over the hard-to-assemble facts, is a common human tendency. I suspect that we all tend to believe that what we personally feel, deep in our hearts, must be true—many times we have been disillusioned by life’s errant ways. But this tendency to trust our own intuitions, or those of our pal across the street, is precisely what we must avoid in attempting to measure the opinions of millions who do not live across the street.
Any attempt to analyze the complexities of modern public opinion must have solid statistical backing. Business, risking millions, knows this; so increasingly does government. But the press, presumably risking only a forgotten statement in yesterday’s discarded newspaper, often seems to behave as if it were operating in a simpler yesterday, when everybody knew everybody and the “labor vote” (or the “Italian vote” or whatever) could be “delivered,” and the electoral process could be grasped and analyzed in one man’s mind. I don’t know that it ever was that simple; but I know it is not that simple in 1962.
There is at great need, an unquestionable need, for all the fine political analysis that fine journalists can make. Journalists have much to tell us about the activities of politicians and the workings of political power. And the more eminent men of the press go beyond analyzing what is to suggest what should be; they are among our best critics of the political process. But when journalists want to put their finger on the public pulse and tell us with precision what men or women or farmers or factory workers or suburbanites or members of the upper middle class are thinking, feeling, and planning to do, they had better turn to the polls. The polls have for some time had their fingers on that pulse, and this is their small contribution to democracy.