“The Great Fiasco” of the 1948 Presidential election polls: Status recognition and norms conflict in social science

Abstract: All three ‘scientific’ pollsters (Crossley, Gallup and Roper) wrongly predicted incumbent President Harry Truman’s defeat in the 1948 presidential election, and thus faced a potentially serious legitimacy crisis. This ‘fiasco’ occurred at a most inopportune time. Social science was embroiled in a policy debate taking place in the halls of Congress. It was fighting a losing battle to be included, along with the natural sciences, in the National Science Foundation, for which legislation was being drafted. Faced with the failure of the polls, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) intervened quickly to prevent social science’s adversaries from using this event to degrade further its status. After all, many social scientists considered the sample survey as the paramount tool of social research, and sampling as one of social science’s greatest innovation. Concurrently, there was an ongoing conflict among polling practitioners themselves—between advocates of probability sampling and users of quotas, like the pollsters. The SSRC committee appointed to evaluate the polling debacle managed to keep this contentious issue of sampling from becoming the centre of attention. Given the inauspicious environment in which this event happened, the SSRC did not wish to advertise the fact that the house of social science was in turmoil.

KEYWORDS : public opinion polls, legitimacy crisis, scientific status, norms conflict, social science

Paper available upon request.

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