IOWA CITY — Political polling makes headlines during every election cycle, and it’s hard to take a historical look at polling in this country without talking about George Gallup Sr.
The University of Iowa is now home to the definitive collection of information about Gallup and the launch and growth of his famed poll, after UI’s Special Collections and University Archives in August received more than 200 boxes of Gallup papers, historical data and photographs.
“It probably goes without saying, for anyone studying the history of polling, this is the raw material of some major aspects of its development,” said Greg Prickman, head of UI Special Collections and University Archives. “So political science, sociology, American studies — scholars in these fields I think for sure will be interested. Because you really do get from this collection ... you get that sense of history about how things were done, how decisions were made.”
UI staff and graduate students are sorting through the collection and plan to have a temporary exhibit highlighting it on display starting in April at the Main Library.
The Gallup papers, dating back to the 1920s, were donated to the UI several months ago but the planned gift had been in the works for years, Prickman said. Gallup, who died in 1984, was a Jefferson native who received three degrees from the UI — in 1923, 1925 and 1928. While at the UI, he also played football and was editor of the Daily Iowan.
He went on to form the American Institute of Public Opinion in 1935, which later became The Gallup Organization.
The 1936 presidential election really put Gallup on the map in polling, Prickman said, because Gallup correctly predicted that Franklin D. Roosevelt would defeat Alfred Landon, which contradicted a more famous poll at the time. Many documents in the UI collection trace the polling of that race. One framed Gallup piece from Nov. 1, 1936, signed by FDR, discusses the race.
“Thirty-six was the election where Gallup got it right,” Prickman said. “Where people started to really pay attention to this, to the Gallup Poll and the information they were circulating.”
There are also plenty of documents in the collection about the 1948 presidential race — the one Gallup got wrong, predicting Thomas Dewey would defeat Harry Truman in a landslide. There was a Congressional inquiry into the Gallup polling after that election, based on suspicion they were trying to sway the vote, Prickman said. Gallup was eventually exonerated.
“Gallup’s conclusion was that they stopped polling too soon,” Prickman said. “I think it was certainly a wake-up call, because the elections before that they had done so well.”
The Gallup papers hold interesting information beyond politics, as well. There are polls and surveys from the 1940s that gather opinions about actors and movie-viewing habits, commissioned by the Hollywood studios, Prickman said, and data on issues polling that shines a light on the beliefs of Americans.
“One thing you find going through this stuff is they had a great sense of humor in what they were doing and the reaction to it,” Prickman said, talking about Gallup and his two sons who also worked with polling, George Gallup Jr. and Alec Gallup.
The family kept political cartoons and also what they called “crank letters,” from people telling them how wrong and biased they were.
The idea to send the collection to the UI started in the 1980s with George Gallup Sr., Prickman said. George Gallup Jr. died last year; he had been working in recent years to organize the collection of thousands of documents while working on a biography of his father.
For years, the UI had two boxes of items from Gallup, just a few of his papers, and those were listed on the UI special collections archive. That resulted in numerous inquires over the years from researchers, historians and academics, Prickman said, so officials expect the full collection will draw much interest.“I think there’s a good amount of materials here that no one’s really had a chance to study,” Prickman said.