Be skeptical of surveys of public opinion, example #441
By Scott Sumner
Tyler Cowen and David Henderson recently linked to a study of the 1932 election by Helmut Norpoth. Here’s the abstract:
In 1932, the American electorate was surveyed in a poll that has languished in the archives. The survey was conducted by Houser Associates, a pioneer in market research. It interviewed face-to-face a representative cross section about voter choices and issue attitudes. Although conducted on behalf of the Hoover campaign, the poll was not biased in his favor. The most striking revelation is that the electoral sway of the Depression was quite limited. The government was not seen by most voters as the major culprit or as having been ineffective in alleviating it. Even many FDR voters agreed. Moreover, there was no widespread “doom and gloom” about the future. What loomed larger in 1932 was the issue of Prohibition. The American people overwhelmingly favored repeal. The Democratic stand on it—that is, outright repeal—was a sure electoral winner, given Hoover’s staunch defense of Prohibition.
I’m skeptical of this claim. Consider the 1928 election, where the GOP supported prohibition and the Democrats opposed prohibition. Herbert Hoover won that election in a landslide (by 18%). Yes, religion might have cost the Democrats a few votes in 1928, but they had lost the popular vote in the previous two elections by even more overwhelming margins (25% and 26%). Those results are hard to reconcile with the claim that opposition to prohibition played a decisive role in American politics.
Then in 1932 we saw a complete reversal, with the GOP not just losing, but losing in a landslide (by 18%)—after three consecutive landslides in their favor. What had changed so dramatically? Certainly not prohibition, which was there all through the 1920s. Rather the economy had gone from a boom in late 1928 to the worst depression in US history by 1932.
It’s also interesting that support for Hoover seemed to pick up a bit in the summer of 1932, when the economy improved for three consecutive months, and then fell off in October, when the economy turned down again. (Actually, we can’t be sure of that claim because polling was not very advanced at that time. But that was the view of the media I have read, and seemed to be the view of the stock market as well.)
So why would people suggest that their vote depend on prohibition? It is possible that by 1932 prohibition had become a more important issue than during the 1920s. Repeal was seen as giving a boost to the economy, and also providing revenue to cover the budget deficit. So perhaps prohibition and the economy interacted. But I still find it hard to believe that the 1932 election would have differed so dramatically from the previous three elections were we not near the bottom of the worst depression in US history. People may think it sounds respectable to tell pollsters that the Depression is not the government’s fault, but at some level the degree of economic pain almost certainly led to at least a subconscious desire to try something new. There is plenty of evidence from other elections that a bad economy does hurt the incumbent party.
This is not to deny that prohibition was a significant vote winner for the Democrats—I believe it was. I just don’t think it explains the huge election swing from 1928.
PS. The paper itself is gated. If someone has access, please let me know if the paper addresses any of my reservations.