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University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Gallup, George Horace
(November 19, 1901–July 26, 1984)

–founder of the American Institute of Public Opinion, better known as the Gallup Poll, whose name was synonymous with public opinion polling around the world—was born in Jefferson, Iowa. He later said, "My early background had everything to do with my life later on."A New Yorker article would speculate that it was Gallup's background in "utterly normal Iowa" that enabled him to find "nothing odd in the idea that one man might represent, statistically, ten thousand or more of his own kind."Gallup's father fostered an entrepreneurial, questioning attitude at an early age, helping George and his brother John set up a milking business with six cows to finance their clothing and supply needs. In high school George used the milk route profits to pay for a football team when the school decided to drop the sport after the coach was drafted for World War I. George's high school yearbook called him a "nervy little fighter," a characterization that also seems to fit his years at the State University of Iowa, where he began his studies in 1919.

    He became editor of the university newspaper, the Daily Iowan, in the summer of 1921 and instituted ambitious changes to increase readership and turn it into a full-fledged daily newspaper. As editor, Gallup was known for controversial, biting, and colorfully written editorials on topics ranging from university politics, defending the state of Iowa, and sex education to student radicalism, socialism, and many other issues of the day. In the summer of 1922 he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch conducting house-to-house surveys about the newspaper, which sparked an interest in the measurement of opinion. He began graduate work in psychology at the State University of Iowa in 1923, but taught journalism classes, supervised the three student publications, and founded a national honor society for high school journalists, the Quill and Scroll Society. His thesis, completed in 1925, used a survey method to determine the characteristics of successful salespeople at Killian's Department Store in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That same year he married Ophelia Smith Miller, a fellow graduate student. Gallup continued teaching in the School of Journalism and began working toward a Ph.D., continuing his applied research in opinion. His dissertation was based on a survey of Des Moines Register and Des Moines Tribune readers and used a method Gallup called the "Iowa method," which he believed improved on the methods he had used in the Post-Dispatch surveys.

    The Cowles family, publishers of the Register and Tribune, wanted to continue to use Gallup's surveys and expertise to improve their papers, so in 1929 they persuaded him to accept a position as head of the Department of Journalism at Drake University in Des Moines. He remained at Drake for two years, then was a professor of journalism at Northwestern University in 1931-1932, but his business consultations and the burgeoning field of market research led to several job offers in the business world. In 1932 Gallup accepted a job with Young and Rubicam in New York, but events in Iowa still greatly influenced his development. When his mother-in-law, Ola Babcock Miller, was nominated as the Democratic candidate for Secretary of State in 1932, Gallup became interested in political polling and completed "a few rather crude samples" of polls regarding Miller's candidacy.

    In 1935 Gallup partnered with Harry Anderson to found the American Institute of Public Opinion, based in Princeton, New Jersey, an opinion polling firm that included a syndicated newspaper column called "America Speaks."The reputation of the organization was made when Gallup publicly challenged the polling techniques of the Literary Digest, the best-known political straw poll of the day. Calculating that the Digest would wrongly predict that Kansas Republican Alf Landon would win the presidential election, Gallup offered newspapers a money-back guarantee if his prediction that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would win wasn't more accurate.

    Gallup believed that public opinion polls served an important function in a democracy: "If government is supposed to be based on the will of the people, somebody ought to go and find what that will is," Gallup explained. The Gallup Poll continued to grow, with many foreign affiliates and an expanding array of regular questions on the social, economic, and political issues of the day as well as the more profitable marketing and advertising research initiatives. Beginning in 1969, Gallup conducted an annual survey on attitudes toward education and the public schools, published by Kappan. The Gallup Poll survived setbacks such as the miscalled election of 1948 and scandals in 1968 related to improper sharing of poll data with the Nixon administration, and continues under a new parent company, still run by Gallup's sons George Gallup Jr. and Alec Gallup.

    Gallup died at age 83 at his summer home in Switzerland.
Sources Gallup's publications include A Guide to Public Opinion Polls (1944), Public Opinion in a Democracy (1939), The Pulse of Democracy: The Public Opinion Poll and How It Works (1940), and The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1935–1971 (1972). An oral history interview was conducted by the Columbia University Oral History Research Office (copy held by University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City). See also "Taking 'the Pulse of Democracy': George Gallup, Iowa, and the Origin of the Gallup Poll," Palimpsest 74 (1993), 98–113.
Contributor: Becky Wilson Hawbaker