George Horace Gallup was born and grew up in Jefferson, Iowa. He entered Iowa State University to study journalism and psychology at a time when his family was in dire financial straits. So he supported himself by operating a towel concession in the locker room of his school's swimming pool and by turning the college newspaper, The Daily Iowan, into a paper for the entire (otherwise paperless) town where local merchants were persuaded to support it with their ads. After graduation, he stayed on as an instructor in journalism, but later moved on to teach journalism and advertising at Drake University, Northwestern University, and, eventually, Columbia University.
In the 1930s, he also held a flashy post at Young and Rubicam, a New York advertising firm, where he put into practice ideas contained in his doctoral thesis on A New Technique for Objective Methods for Measuring Reader Interest in Newspapers. The ideas concerned random sampling, which he proposed to use for measuring the interest of readers in various magazines and newspaper features. (At the time, his pioneering work gave rise to the use of comics for ads and the birth of Look magazine.)
In 1935, almost as a lark, he founded the American Institute of Public Opinion, followed in 1936 by the British Institute of Public Opinion, and in 1939 by the Audience Research Institute. From these beginnings, the Gallup Organization grew to become the world's largest survey research company by the end of the 20th century. Headquartered in Princeton, New Jersey, it had affiliates in 25 countries around the globe, all measuring people's reactions to magazines and newspapers, radio and television, a host of social and business-related issues, and much more. (Check it out on the Internet by visiting
Although Gallup became best known as a political pollster, he built his fortune originally by telling business executives what people thought. Walt Disney, for instance, decided to create the film Alice in Wonderland only after Gallup had pretested the idea. Other filmmakers asked him to identify which stars would be the biggest box office draws and which scripts would win audiences. And soon everyone craved his highly accurate forecasts before marketing new products. Here Gallup pioneered the recall method to determine which print, radio, and television ads caught people's attention. For example, a commercial would be run on network TV within a regular prime-time program. The next evening, Gallup interviewers in several cities would make thousands of phone calls to randomly selected numbers until they found 200 persons who had watched the program at the exact time the commercial appeared. These people would be asked whether they recalled the ad and exactly what it had said. Based on the answers, Gallup developed the Proved Commercial Registration (PCR) Score (giving the percentage of respondents who precisely described the ad's content), the Idea Communication Score (giving the percentage of respondents who remembered some specific sales points only), and the Favorable Attitude Score (giving the percentage of respondents who remembered no specifics, but had come away with a "warm feeling" about the advertised product).
Of course, Gallup also changed the nature of politics. In 1936, unlike the Literary Digest magazine noted in the Chapter 4 Preview, he was the first to predict Franklin Roosevelt's victory over Alf Landon, and he did so from a random sample of a mere 50,000 Americans. He was not always right, however. In 1948, along with many others, he predicted wrongly about the Dewey/Truman campaign, but he learned from his mistakes and came up with ever-more-accurate polling techniques. Nowadays, politicians routinely use these techniques to determine the views of a cross section of the general public on current issues. On that basis, they formulate campaign platforms that appeal to the public. And everyone continually monitors trends in the public's assessments and, thus, in the ratings of key political personalities.
Having written many articles and books, received a multitude of honors, and turned the Gallup Organization into a giant enterprise, Gallup himself died in Switzerland, a country he loved for its mountains and especially for its reliance on referendums. The country, he rejoiced, was "virtually run by polls."