Interpreting public opinion
By Scott Sumner
I have now had a chance to read the paper I commented on yesterday, and I’ve seen the data that led to the conclusions reached in 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.
This is certainly a plausible interpretation of the findings, but I still lean toward the view that the Great Depression largely explains FDR’s landslide, and I’d like to use this an example of why it is difficult to interpret survey results. In doing so, keep in mind that Hoover won a 18 point landslide in 1928, and FDR won by the same margin in 1932.
The first point I’d make is that the survey covered over 3000 people, of which 670 were swing voters that indicated they intended to switch their votes from Hoover to FDR in 1932. In my view these are the key voters to focus on, as they explain the huge swing toward the Democrats. Thus while most voters did not blame the government for the Depression, 58% of this swing group did blame the government.
In fairness, 85% of the swing group favored repealing Prohibition, so it’s certainly possible that Prohibition was a bigger issue than the economy. But I’d point to two other considerations that cast doubt on that view:
1. Even voters that did not blame the government for causing the Depression (many blamed Wall Street) might have been dissatisfied with Hoover’s performance, and/or thought FDR would do more to solve the problem. Note, for example, that 77% of the swing voters favored more spending on public works. Thus it’s certainly possible that the Depression played a role in voter dissatisfaction that went well beyond the question of who was to blame for causing the Depression. Even those voters not convinced that FDR would do better might reasonably have thought it was worth a shot. If there were no depression they might have stayed with Hoover.
2. While 85% of swing voters favored repealing prohibition, this does not prove the issue “loomed larger” than the economy. There are many issues where public opinion is fairly one-sided, but the issue is not a major factor in elections. Even if there were a big difference between Democrats and Republicans on flag burning, for example, it probably wouldn’t sway many votes.
Thus when considering the impact of public opinion on elections, you need to consider a number of factors, such as the views of the swing voters, the fact that political issues are complex and one question may not fully elucidate the perspective of the public, and that what matters is not just the number of voters that hold a certain view, but also the importance with which they regard the issue.
Prohibition was probably more important than most people assume, but I still think the economy was the decisive issue.