06/14/2007 09:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Living in "Pollsterland"

In her new "Poll Positions" column, CBS News polling
directory Kathy Frankovic discusses
the way pollsters love to ask questions that ask, "what if?" Although, as she
points out, such questions were a favorite of polling pioneer George Gallup, they
come with a potential danger:

[S]ometimes trying out those ideas
may put us just outside of the real world and into what might be called

It's not just that we can ask
questions about Iraq,
or health care, or immigration, or baseball's Barry Bonds, all of which are
aspects of current reality. But we also can ask questions about an invented
reality, such as: What would happen if . . .?

She goes on to list several examples, especially the "most
famous" what-if of all, the one that begins, "if the election were held today..."

Frankovic also notes that Gallup started asking "as early as 1958...whether
Americans would support an African-American candidate for president." My colleagues
in the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) picked up the discussion on our members-only
"listserv," where someone pointed out that Gallup started asking 21 years earlier about
whether Americans would support a woman for president.

This observation prompted one AAPOR member to recall the remarkably
leading language used the very first time George Gallup asked a "what if"
question about a potential woman presidential candidate. I checked the Gallup archives (sub. req.), and here it is
along with the results (from a survey conducted in January 1937 among 2,888 adults

Would you vote for a woman for President if she
qualified in every other respect? [emphasis

33% Yes

64% No

3% No opinion

"Pollsterland," indeed.

PS: Thanks to AAPOR member SL for remember the 1937 Gallup question.

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