Ian Afflerbach is an Assistant Professor of American Literature at the University of North Georgia, where he teaches and researches in twentieth-century American literature and politics, modernist studies, African-American literature, and the history of ideas. His work has appeared or is forthcoming from ELH, Modern Fiction Studies, American Periodicals, Literature Compass, and Studies in the Novel. His current book project, Liberal Modernism, maps a mutually formative antagonism between modernist culture and political liberalism in the United States from the 1930s through the 1960s.
From 1920 to 1932, the Literary Digest—a weekly American magazine—accurately predicted the winner of each presidential election in the United States by conducting massive straw polls. In 1936, however, the magazine fell into irreparable ignominy when, after distributing over ten million questionnaires, the editors predicted a landslide victory for Republican candidate Alf Landon, only to have Franklin Roosevelt win handily, securing sixty-one percent of the popular vote. George Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion, founded just the year before, gained widespread notoriety for not only correctly predicting the election’s outcome using only 50,000 respondents, but also estimating the Digest poll’s error in advance of their publication, with a sample of just 3,000. Gallup took the technique of the questionnaire, made politically potent by mass print culture, yet still employed as a blunt instrument, and infused it with a newfound statistical rigor. Gallup’s confrontation with the Digest at once exemplified and accelerated the growing influence that questionnaires had in American culture in the 1930s, and particularly highlighted how modern periodicals might thrive—or wither—by using this technique to actively engage national political debates. The Literary Digest, founded in 1890, endured its shame only briefly, being sold in 1938 and shortly thereafter dissolved into Henry Luce’s Time. Gallup’s Institute, meanwhile, became a leading authority in evaluating public opinion, his name soon treated as metonymic for the use of modern, quantitative polling.