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Public Opinion Polls

The problem of government by public opinion was considered by James Madison, long before any method of calculating it was devised. In an essay in 1791, Madison considered the two sides of public opinion:

As there are cases where the public opinion must be obeyed by the government; so there are cases, where not being fixed, it may be influenced by the government. This distinction, if kept in view, would prevent or decide many debates on the respect due from the government to the sentiments of the people.
James Wilson took the importance of public opinion so seriously that although he had strongly advocated for the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, he would not vote for it until he had verified with his constituents that this was their intention. Others in the same era considered their role to be to instill in their constituents the proper opinion. This philosophical division continues to the present day. Public opinion polling became widespread and the results more closely watched with the growth of mass media. Literary Digest used direct mail to obtain results which it published, including a correct prediction the Roosevelt would win in 1932. Unfortunately, by 1936, superior results were being obtained by scientific pollsters like George Gallup, and the danger of the direct mail methods were pointed out when Literary Digest obtained results showing a landslide electoral college victory for Alf Landon when he actually only carried Maine and Vermont. Largely as a result, the magazine folded soon afterwards.