80 years ago, the American newspapers published the very first opinion poll in history...
80 years ago to the day, while the Italian army’s lack of progress in its invasion of Ethiopia was making front-page news in the American press, the findings of an American Institute of Public Opinion study conducted by George Gallup were accorded a full-page analysis a few pages into some forty different newspapers. This gave millions of Americans an insight into these newly invented opinion polls with a bright future in store.
Although the roll-out of the New Deal seemed to be bearing fruit with growth at around 10% and unemployment rates markedly down, this study did not bode well for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected in November 1932. Conducted among 10,000 people, a large majority of Americans (60%) thought that "expenditures by the Government for relief and recovery" were "too great", 31% said they were "about right", and 9% felt they were "too little".
The reasons for this rejection of an over-powerful Federal Government lie in the controversial measures taken by the Roosevelt Administration earlier in 1935. The Democratic President’s first decisions back in 1933 and 1934 mainly sought to regulate the banking system and provide millions of unemployed people with emergency relief, but a turning point in the New Deal came in 1935. That year, the Administration asked Congress to pass a series of acts one after another, including the National Labor Relations Act (which aimed at setting greater store by trade unions), the Works Progress Administration (which focused on providing unemployed people with jobs carrying out major public works projects) and above all the Social Security Act, which set up an old age pensions scheme for all workers.
All these reforms proved particularly unpopular with the Republic opposition, a handful of moderate Democrats and the Supreme Court, which considered them at odds with the spirit of the Constitution as intended by the Founding Fathers, who would hardly have wished for an increase in Federal Government prerogatives. In this context, the Republicans voted massively against (89%) the expenditures by the Government. Even the number of disgruntled voters among the Democratic ranks regarding the level of public expenditure was far from trivial. At 36%, this was a worrying figure for President Roosevelt with only one year to go until the next presidential elections. It came as no surprise that the millions of American people without employment or on welfare benefits – whose daily hardships were chronicled by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath – were most likely (40%) to consider that the Administration was not doing enough to help them.
Above all, the Americans were increasingly inclined to reject the New Deal. Although this was the very first poll to be made public, George Gallup had already tested this new method for measuring public opinion. As such, the article indicated a sharp rise in the number of respondents who were of the opinion that expenditures by the Government for relief and recovery were "too great": 37% in February 1934, 48% in July 1934 and, by October 1935, this figure had reached 60%.
And yet, despite growing opposition to the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt would overwhelmingly win re-election in 1936, garnering 60.8% of votes against Republican Alf Landon, and the majority in 46 out of 48 States (Alaska and Hawaii did not officially enter the Union until 1959). A landslide victory that can be explained by the economy’s continuing improvement throughout 1936, with 13% growth and unemployment on a clear downward trend, as well as fear-driven efforts to keep the Republicans – blamed for decades for a laissez-faire attitude during the economic crisis – from power.