The first American survey was ordered by the Constitution, and Article 1, Section 2, even specified the cross-tabs: “Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of years”; “Indians not taxed”; and, infamously, “three fifths of all other persons”—that is to say, slaves. The new nation may have taken as its motto E pluribus unum, “From many, one,” but differences among Americans were written into the original political charter.

One hundred forty-nine years later, modern political surveying was born. The most famous presidential “straw poll” of the day was published for years in a magazine called Literary Digest. Its 1936 survey said the Republican Alf Landon would beat Franklin Roosevelt. Instead, Roosevelt ran up the biggest landslide in history. But George Gallup, Archibald Crossley, and Elmo Roper, competing market researchers who did political work on the side, had called it for Roosevelt. They used, Sarah Igo explains in her very thoughtful book, “statistical techniques that permitted a tiny cross-section of citizens of different regions, classes, and races to stand in for the whole.” It seemed to bestow on them an almost magic power: to divine how the average man thought.

By the 1940 presidential election, the three researchers claimed a grandiose civic function. “The political wisdom of the common people can now be settled,” Gallup pronounced, “on the basis of a mountain of factual data.” They gave their articles titles like, “We, the People, Are Like This,” and made confident assertions like, “The average American takes the attitude that conscription is . . . necessary.” This “average American” took on an almost living, breathing presence.

Such rhetoric obscured a paradox. Producing that one essential American required an understanding of the nation as a patchwork: so many people in this income group, so many in that; x number of Protestants, y number of Catholics. Only then could the pollsters know which two thousand Americans could, when extrapolated, be taken as a reasonable facsimile of the whole. The work required as finely tuned a sense of the gradations of class as the compiler of a social register; “both Roper and Gallup preferred interviews to take place in the home rather than on the street,” Igo observes, “because a glance around the domestic interior allowed a better assessment of the interviewee’s financial status.”
Deepening the paradox was the fact that not all Americans were equally worth being counted toward the average. Predicting elections meant counting likely voters. Since minorities, the poor, and women were less likely to vote, they were deliberately undercounted—though they, too, might have opinions about whether conscription was necessary. In a sense, the poll impresarios were in a better position than anyone else to understand the pitfalls of averaging Americans. Yet that didn’t keep them from making extravagant claims about the pristinely value-free nature of their work.

Nor did it keep them from making extravagant value claims: that their average American did not merely exist, he happened to be wise and independent-minded. Intellectuals like Walter Lippmann had long warned that a mass-media-driven public would be easily manipulated. Gallup said his polls showed “not one bit of scientific evidence” to support the idea. It was, in fact, the opposite: “the political wisdom of the common people”—Gallup specified their readiness to submit to conscription—was “ahead” of their leaders.

Not surprisingly, once thus enshrined, the “average American” argued back at Gallup. Igo quotes the angry letters: “If you took a true poll of the American people . . . you would find them over 95 percent for Senator McCarthy,” read one; reported another, “Clamp your eyes on something true right from our plant. This straw vote was taken yesterday: Ike 3–Democrat 24 . . . Ike can not get elected.”

The two letters make opposite partisan claims. But they partake of the same assumption: that there is an average American, and that his politics can be deduced by empirical observation. That was a fairly new idea, and Igo devotes the first third of her book to the phenomenon that did more than anything else to get the public thinking that way: not a survey, but a study of a single community published in 1929, Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd’s Middletown.

Like Gallup and the other political pollsters Igo writes about, the Lynds promoted the scientific status of their claims—and simultaneously slipped in a moral subtext. The Lynds had been hired to undertake “a Basic Religious Study of the people in a small industrial community.” Their sponsors wanted a town “near the centre of life in the U.S.” and home to “all the chief denominations.” The Lynds further refined those conditions in the interest of an emerging social science ideology. They rejected South Bend for its “cultural and religious heterogeneity”—too many immigrants, for one thing—preferring instead Muncie, Indiana.

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. His new book, Nixonland: The Politics and Culture of the American Berserk, 1965-1972, is forthcoming.