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Sunday, January 17, 2016

The First Presidential Pollster

At Politico, David Greenberg writes about the first presidential pollster.  In the spring of 1935, FDR worried about a third-party challenge from Louisiana senator Huey Long.
Anxiety about this populist brushfire led Democratic Party chairman James A. Farley to commission a secret poll gauging Long’s prospects. After a dinner with Roosevelt and several top aides, Farley and the pollster reviewed the survey results alongside a “greatly interested” president. The numbers were surprising: In a three-way presidential race, FDR still won, but Long took 11 percent of the vote, faring especially well among the economically distressed. The poll showed that Long’s popularity was far-reaching, confined neither to the South nor to rural areas. He polled strongly in western states (32 percent in Washington) and respectably in midwestern industrial cities (16 percent in Cleveland). Long, Farley concluded, could “have the balance of power in the 1936 election”: A strong showing could peel off enough FDR voters to elect a Republican. Worse still, the poll showed the president to be weaker than at any time since his inauguration.

Farley kept the poll results from the press. He told the Associated Press that he expected “no third-party [bid] of ‘serious proportions.’” Privately, though, he was less assured, and his doubts leaked. The veteran journalist Mark Sullivan reported that FDR was planning to “go so far to the left that there will be no reason for anybody on the extreme left to have a third ticket under Senator Huey Long or anybody else.” The “Soak the Rich” tax hikes on the wealthy and on corporations that Roosevelt signed into law that summer were only the clearest example of a leftward tack designed to steal Long’s thunder.
The man who conducted Farley’s poll, under the anodyne moniker “National Inquirer,” was Emil Edward Hurja, a jowly, somber-looking 43-year-old employee of the Democratic National Committee. An autodidact who taught himself statistics, Hurja rose to national prominence during FDR’s first term, making the cover of Time magazine in March 1936. FDR’s aide Louis Howe dubbed his brilliant prognosticator “Weegee” (a phonetic spelling of Ouija) for his seemingly prophetic powers, while Farley called him “the Wizard of Washington.” Roosevelt’s enemies called him “Farley’s stooge.” This renown was not undeserved: Though little remembered today—only one obscure but indispensable biography exists, by historian Melvin G. Holli—Hurja was, in fact, the first man to poll for an American president.