03/20/2009 - In 1916, the venerable Literary Digest sent out millions of postcards asking Americans to express their preferences in the upcoming presidential race.
It was the first known example of public opinion polling on a national level, and it allowed the magazine to correctly predict Woodrow Wilson’s re-election that year and the winners of the four elections that followed. Alas, the Digest’s winning streak ended spectacularly in 1936 when, relying on more than two million returned postcards, it asserted that Alf Landon would handily defeat Franklin D. Roosevelt. It turned out that the Digest's approach was fatally flawed. Its list of postcard recipients—Depression-era Americans with telephones and cars—was biased in favor of the affluent. In that same election a young ad man named George Gallup conducted a more scientific survey of a representative sample of 50,000 Americans and correctly predicted Roosevelt’s landslide victory. The era of modern polling was launched.
Like Gallup back in 1936, the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan "fact tank" that is one of America’s premier polling organizations, still relies on face-to-face interviews for its Global Attitudes studies in much of the developing world. But in the United States the norm has long been to survey people at random by telephone. What was new last year is that a significant proportion of interviewees—particularly the young and the mobile—were reached on their cell phones. In its final survey on the eve of the 2008 presidential election—based on a combination of 2,551 landline and 851 cell-phone interviews—the Pew Research Center correctly forecast Barack Obama’s six-point victory over John McCain. It was the second straight presidential election in which the Pew Research Center predicted not only the winner, but also the exact margin of victory.
Predicting the outcome of a presidential election two days before the voters weigh in is an exercise of limited value in its own right. But pre-election polls amount to a crucial final exam for polling organizations—a straightforward way to assess whether "scientific" surveys of tiny percentages of the population are indeed an accurate reflection of public opinion. In acing the test once again, the Pew Research Center added to the credibility of the many surveys it conducts each year that cannot be validated in such a direct fashion.
The nature and complexity of those surveys vary widely. In 2008 the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life released the results of a mammoth 35,000-person survey of Americans’ religious practices and beliefs. Serving as a de facto religion census—the official U.S. census does not include any questions about matters of faith—the forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey found that religious affiliation in this country is both very diverse and extremely fluid: More than one in four Americans are no longer affiliated with the faith in which they were born.
The center’s Social and Demographic Trends unit tackled a similarly huge topic in seeking to produce a definitive portrait of the American middle class. Released months in advance of the crisis in the financial markets, it reported that nearly 8 in 10 respondents said it was now more difficult than five years ago for people in the middle class to maintain their standard of living. Nonetheless, the American middle class—more than half the public put itself in that category—expressed optimism for the future.
The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project produced a definitive study of a very different nature—the first national survey on teenagers and video gaming. It found that virtually all American teens play computer, console or cell-phone games, but that, contrary to the stereotype of the lone, alienated gamer, there was a significant amount of social interaction and potential for civic engagement.
Much of the research center’s work in the past year focused, not surprisingly, on the election campaign. The Pew Hispanic Center tracked the attitudes of Latinos, the fastest-growing group of voters. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press went beyond the horse race to identify key trends in the electorate, such as a generational shift in party affiliation that favored the Democrats. The Pew Global Attitudes Project confirmed that Barack Obama was wildly popular in Europe even before he secured the Democratic nomination.
An important addition to our portfolio this past year was the groundbreaking media content analysis of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The project monitored the work of a representative sample of 48 news outlets, producing weekly reports on how the election was being covered. In doing so, it provided hard numbers to inform the raging debate over the fairness of the media’s handling of the candidates.
In today’s turbulent economic and political climate, the one certainty is that the nation will grapple with innumerable challenges in the year ahead. Through its surveys and in-depth reports, the Pew Research Center will continue to give policy makers and the public a "plumb line" of objective information on a broad array of issues—and thus help ensure a robust democracy.
Managing Director, Information Initiatives and the Philadelphia Program
Read more about Pew's work in Pew Prospectus 2009 (PDF).