The Literary Digest was an influential general interest weekly magazine published by Funk & Wagnalls. Founded by Isaac Kaufmann Funk in 1890, it eventually merged with two similar weekly magazines, Public Opinion and Current Opinion.
Beginning with early issues, the emphasis was on opinion articles and an analysis of news events. Established as a weekly newsmagazine, it offered condensations of articles from American, Canadian and European publications. Type-only covers gave way to illustrated covers during the early 1900s. After Isaac Funk's death in 1912, Robert Joseph Cuddihy became the editor. In the 1920s, the covers carried full-color reproductions of famous paintings.
By 1927, The Literary Digest climbed to a circulation of over one million. Covers of the final issues displayed various photographic and photo-montage techniques. In 1938, it merged with the Review of Reviews, only to fail soon after. Its subscriber list was bought by Time.
The Literary Digest is almost certainly best-remembered today for the circumstances surrounding its demise. It conducted a "straw poll" regarding the likely outcome of the 1936 presidential election. The poll showed that the Republican governor of Kansas, Alf Landon, would likely be the overwhelming winner. This seemed possible to some, as the Republicans had fared well in Maine, where the congressional and gubernatorial elections were then held in September - as opposed to the rest of the nation, where these elections were held in November along with the presidential election, like today. This seemed especially likely in light of the conventional wisdom, "As Maine goes, so goes the nation", a truism coined because Maine was regarded as a "bellwether" state which usually supported the winning candidate's party.
In November, Landon carried only Vermont and Maine; U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt carried the then-46 other states; Landon's electoral vote total of eight is a tie for the record low for a major-party nominee since the current U.S. two-party system began in the 1850s. The Democrats joked, "As goes Maine, so goes Vermont," and the magazine was completely discredited because of the poll and was soon discontinued.
In retrospect, the polling techniques employed by the magazine were to blame. Although it had polled 10 million individuals (only about 2.4 million of these individuals responded, an astronomical sum for any survey), it had surveyed firstly its own readers, a group with disposable incomes well above the national average of the time (shown in part by their ability still to afford a magazine subscription during the depths of the Great Depression). The magazine also used two other readily available lists: that of registered automobile owners and that of telephone users. While such lists might come close to providing a statistically-accurate cross-section of Americans today, this assumption was manifestly untrue in the 1930s. Both groups had incomes well above the national average of the day, which resulted in lists of voters far more likely to support Republicans than a truly typical voter of the time.
George Gallup's American Institute of Public Opinion achieved national recognition by correctly predicting the result of the election, and for correctly predicting the results of the Literary Digest poll to within about 1%, using a smaller sample size of 50,000.
This debacle led to a considerable refinement of public opinion polling techniques and was largely regarded as spurring the beginning of the era of modern scientific public opinion research.
- Freedman, David; Pisani, Robert; Purves, Roger (2007). Statistics (4th ed.). New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-92972-8.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 "Press: Digest Digested". Time. 23 May 1938. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,882981,00.html. Retrieved 8 March 2010.
- ↑ Kelsey Boone, "William Carman Roberts," New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia, Web, June 10, 2011.
- ↑ "A word a day Man: a biography". Biographical essay. Centre d'Ã©tudes du 19e siÃ¨cle franÃ§ais Joseph SablÃ©.. http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/french/sable/recherche/catalogues/Vizetelly/Frankbiography.htm. Retrieved 18 October 2010.
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 Freedman, et al.: 335-336
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