Information

Who conducted the first “straw poll” in U.S. election politics, and when was it conducted?


Prior to Gallup and Roper et al in the 1930's and The Literary Digest in 1916, what was the first election straw poll in US elections? Three sources that I found cite three different answers (though all agree it took place in the election of 1824):

  • Wikipedia says it was The Aru Pennsylvanian;
  • Tom W. Smith says George Gallup himself cited pre-election tallies in North Carolina and Delaware as being the first polls, as found in this article on JStor: The First Straw?: A Study of the Origins of Election Polls, Tom W. Smith, The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Spring, 1990), pp. 21-36, Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Association for Public Opinion Research;
  • Elections A to Z, edited by David Tarr, Bon Benenson, indicates

    The first published presidential poll was in the Harrisburg Pennsylvanian on July 24, 1824. The publication's straw vote among the people in Wilmington and Newark, Delaware showed a preference for Andrew Jackson over John Quincy Adams.

Which, if any of these, is correct in identifying the first public opinion polls in US election history?


It seems that the confusion in this case stems from a bad edit to the Wikipedia page on 18 June 2015 where the name of the newspaper that conducted the first poll was changed from the Harrisburg Pennsylvanian to the Aru Pennsylvanian.

However, it seems that the Library of Congress has no record of any newspaper titled the Aru Pennsylvanian, only The Pennsylvanian, published in Harrisburg from 10 January 1824 to 1 January 1825, which we can safely assume to be the Harrisburg Pennsylvanian mentioned in other sources that discuss early polls.

[The impact of Wikipedia can be seen by searching on Google for "Aru Pennsylvanian", and noting the similarity of the wording in the articles retrieved by the search!]


The poll published in the Harrisburg Pennsylvanian on 24 July 1824 wasn't actually carried out in Harrisburg. As the article The First Political Poll, by Dr. G. Terry Madonna and Dr. Michael Young, observes:

"… Strangely enough, the poll was conducted not in Pennsylvania but in Delaware.

The newspaper surveyed groups of citizens in Wilmington during July 1824, asking about their presidential favorites.

Which explains the comment attributed to George Gallup (from the 1940 book The pulse of democracy: The public-opinion poll and how it works by Gallup and Rae).


In his 1972 book, The sophisticated poll watcher's guide (Princeton University Press), Gallup notes that the other newspaper-run straw poll came out in Raleigh, North Carolina [p240].

This poll seems to have been the one published in the Raleigh register, and North-Carolina state gazette on Friday 20 August 1824 (subscription required).

Thus, there were indeed two newspaper-run straw polls for the 1824 Presidential election, but the one published by the Harrisburg Pennsylvanian on on 24 July 1824 seems to have been the earliest by a couple of weeks.


One note of caution is appropriate, however. Although these were the first newspaper-run straw polls to be published there were also many straw polls that were never published (nor were they ever intended to be published). The article The Evolution of Polling in the United States, (published in Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 75, No. 5, 2011, pp. 962-981) cites Tom W. Smith's paper The first straw?: A study of the origins of election polls (published in the same journal in January 1990 [Volume 54, Issue 1, 1 January 1990, Pages 21-36], but sadly behind a paywall) when observing that:

"… unscientific straw polls date to at least the 1824 presidential election, when informal trial heat tallies were taken in scattered taverns, militia offices, and public meetings."


So, the best that we can say is that the first newspaper-run, straw poll to be published was carried out by the Harrisburg Pennsylvanian during July 1824, in Wilmington, Delaware, and published by that newspaper on 24 July 1824.

It seems that earlier straw-polls were quite possibly taken, but the results were not preserved, and we are thus unable to say precisely where, or by whom, those polls were carried out.