November 3rd, 2023, marked the 75th anniversary of the infamous Chicago Tribune headline “Dewey Defeats Truman,” which kicked off a course correction in the nascent social science of opinion research. Many of the most respected polls of the time so badly missed the mark that the Social Science Research Council formed a committee to evaluate the errors and manage the public backlash against polling.
The expert committee identified several root causes for the errors and made recommendations for future pre-election polls in areas including sampling techniques and analysis of voting behavior. It also advocated for the use of more conservative language to describe polling results.
The committee’s work was impactful due in large part to the cooperation of George Gallup, Archibald Crossley, and Elmo Roper. These commercial pollsters (with deep journalistic ties) were lauded for their pioneering work in public opinion research, separate from pre-election prediction or “horserace” polling. George Gallup was particularly forthright in submitting his methodologies for peer review, for the betterment of a science that was increasingly synonymous with his name.
Adam Clymer in a May 18, 1998, New York Times piece “50 Years Later, Pollsters Analyze Their Big Defeat” discussed some of the lasting takeaways and included a poignant quote from Kathleen A. Frankovic—Warren J. Mitofsky Award winner, past president of AAPOR, and former member of the Roper Center Board of Directors:
''In 1948, the error was overconfidence and belief in oneself'' and the perfection of current methods, she said. ''If we forget that, the same thing could happen any time.''
The Roper Center is extremely grateful that Kathleen Frankovic donated several personal items from her polling career to the Center, including this original pair of Chicago Tribunes: the first early edition with the infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” banner, and the second, later edition, with a headline announcing Truman’s win.
They are proudly displayed in the foyer of the Roper Center’s offices on the Cornell University campus.