Public Opinion Polling

March 5, 1976

Report Outline
Concern About Polls in Election Year
Development of Polling Techniques
Difficulties in Regulating Pollsters

Concern About Polls in Election Year

Confusion Over Voter Preference for President

Public opinion polls are often referred to as the country's fifth estate. Some persons charge that polls have come to exert undue influence over the other four by relaying to the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government and the news media what “the people” think and want. It is hardly surprising that the pollsters, like all powerful groups, are being subjected to scrutiny and criticism. And it is even less surprising that polls are receiving particular attention as the 1976 election approaches.

Pre-election surveys represent only a small fraction of all polling. Less publicized but far more extensive and profitable is the research conducted for business, government, foundations. pressure groups and even churches. But it is the voting surveys that command public attention, and on these surveys pollsters stake their reputations. Their ability to gauge election results accurately is their best advertisement in attracting other and more lucrative business.

Surveys taken late in 1975 by two of the best-known pollsters, Gallup and Harris, cast considerable doubt on the accuracy of polls in general and pre-election polls in particular. The Harris organization questioned 1,214 “likely voters” between Nov. 24 and Dec. 1. Gallup polled 1,078 “registered voters” between Dec. 5 and 8. The sampling techniques used by both groups were similar and so was the question—voter preferences between Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D Minn.) and President Ford, and between Humphrey and Ronald Reagan. The findings were startlingly dissimilar, as is shown below:

  Preferred Ford Preferred Humphrey
Gallup 51% 39%
Harris 41 52
Gallup 50% 42%
Harris 43 50

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Jan. 10, 2020  Political Polls Updated
Feb. 06, 2015  Political Polling
Jul. 15, 1994  Foreign Policy and Public Opinion
Sep. 16, 1988  Benefits and Dangers of Opinion Polls
Mar. 05, 1976  Public Opinion Polling
Jul. 26, 1968  Polls in Election Campaigns
Oct. 12, 1960  Political Polls
Nov. 08, 1940  Measurement of Public Opinion
Journalism and the News