Op Ed: Credit FDR for birthing political polling process

By Bradley Honan and Elisabeth Zeche | Jan. 30, 2022 | Original Article

Sunday marks the 140th anniversary of the birth of former New York Gov. and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The legacy Roosevelt left as a policy innovator is well known. FDR is widely credited with restoring hope and a sound financial footing for Americans in the aftermath of the Great Depression, and waging a successful world war that led to the defeat of Japan, Italy and Nazi Germany.

Today, FDR remains the gold standard for swift government action in the face of grave crisis.

Indeed, 77 years after his death, FDR remains a revered figure that U.S. presidents still want to compare themselves to. Time magazine wrote that President Joe Biden wanted to position himself as “the modern FDR.”

But while there is much to admire about Roosevelt and his legacy, there is a very much overlooked chapter of his innovation legacy that FDR leaves behind for elected officials and political candidates today – namely the invention of modern political polling techniques used to help develop, refine, and execute political campaigns, using not gut instinct or intuition, but rather leveraging data and empirical validation.

Google “FDR” and “polling” and you come up with many references to the disastrous 1936 Literacy Digest poll that gave the polling industry a major black eye. The poll, conducted among literary magazine subscribers, automobile owners, and homes with telephones — three groups hardly representative of the U.S. electorate at the height of the Great Depression — showed FDR getting trounced in his re-election campaign, when in fact he would go on and score a monumental landslide victory.

But far less well-known is Roosevelt’s successful integration of Emil Hurja’s public opinion polling efforts in his campaigns, helping him prevail in the 1932 election against Herbert Hoover, and becoming among the small minority of sitting presidents whose political party gained seats in an off-year election — which is highly unusual. Almost always, the party in the White House loses congressional seats in midterm elections, as is widely expected to happen this coming November.

While John F. Kennedy’s pollster, Lou Harris, and Lyndon Johnson’s pollster, Oliver Quayle (who my father William H. Honan wrote about for the New York Times Magazine in 1966), get the lion’s credit for inventing modern political polling techniques, it was actually Roosevelt and Hurja who laid the foundation decades before either Harris or Quayle.

A biography of Hurja by Melvin Holli offers insight into a relatively unknown chapter of American history. Hurja, working under the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, James Farley, used polling in 1932 to identify what we now call “swing states” and “persuadable voters” — the earliest form of voter targeting. It allowed the Roosevelt campaign to concentrate scarce resources where it matted most.

Polling was deployed again by Farley and Hurja in 1936 when Roosevelt was in the White House. This was the first time a U.S. president had ever commissioned a public opinion poll.

The 1936 polling was designed to gauge the reaction to a potential third party run to Roosevelt’s political left by populist Louisiana Gov. Huey “the Kingfish” Long and radio demagogue Father Charles Coughlin, the Rush Limbaugh of his time. Hurja’s polling data showed Long and Coughlin to be a substantial enough threat to Roosevelt’s left flank that perhaps they could siphon off enough votes and cost FDR the election, handing the race to the Republicans. As a result of the polling data, FDR tacked left and enacted tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations to silence Long and Coughlin’s criticisms.

Hurja’s pioneering work in using scientific sampling techniques to project turnout and vote share won him the nickname the “Wizard of Washington” for his uncanny ability to forecast voting outcomes and put him on the cover of Time. Nevertheless, today this notoriety is all but long forgotten.

Polling today — both good and bad — has become ubiquitous in helping us process and understand what is on the minds of the increasingly diverse American public and the voting electorate.

So while we try and imagine FDR heartily blowing out 140 candles on his birthday cake today, it’s worth giving him due credit for “birthing” the opinion research process vital to helping us understand the contours of contemporary public opinion.

Bradley Honan and Elisabeth Zeche are founders and executives of the Honan Strategy group, a New York based Democratic polling and data analytics firm.