A guide to the messy and contentious past of US presidential pre-election polls and why they aren’t as reliable as we think.
Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election brought sweeping criticism of election polls and poll-based statistical forecasts, which had signaled that Hillary Clinton would win the White House. Surprise ran deep in 2016, but it was not unprecedented. Lost in a Gallup examines in lively and engaging fashion the history of polling flops, epic upsets, unforeseen landslides, and exit poll fiascoes in American presidential elections. Drawing on archival collections and contemporaneous sources, W. Joseph Campbell presents insights on notable pollsters of the past, including George Gallup, Elmo Roper, Archibald Crossley, Warren Mitofsky, and Louis Harris.
The story is one of media failure, too, as journalists invariably take their lead from polls in crafting campaign narratives. Lost in a Gallup describes how numerous prominent journalists—including Edward R. Murrow, Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, Christopher Hitchens, and Haynes Johnson—were outspoken poll-bashers and critics. In assessing polling’s messy, uneven, and controversial past, Campbell emphasizes that although election polls are not always wrong, their inherent drawbacks invite skepticism and wariness. Readers will come away better prepared to weigh the efficacy and value of pre-election polls in presidential races, the most important of all American elections.
W. Joseph Campbell is an American writer, historian, media critic, and blogger who is the author of six other books, including the award-winning Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism.