The Literary Digest Poll

Description

The table below gives the results of a poll published by The Literary Digest magazine on 31 October 1936 (Halloween, appropriately enough), shortly before the 1936 presidential election. The candidates were Franklin Delano Roosevelt (the incumbent president, a democrat) and Alfred (Alf) Mossman Landon (the republican challenger, then governor of Kansas). Approximately 10,000,000 questionnaires (in the form of postcards) were mailed to prospective voters, making the Literary Digest poll one of the largest ever conducted. Approximately 2,300,000 were returned. The prospective voters were chosen from the subscription list of the magazine, from automobile registration lists, from phone lists, and from club membership lists.

The Literary Digest, 19 February 1921
LiteraryDigest

In the data table, the results are given by state. (There were 48 states in 1936.) The variable EV refers to the number of electoral votes of the state, FDR is the Roosevelt total for the state in the poll, and AML is the Landon total for the state in the poll.

Literary Digest Data
StateEVAMLFDR
AL11306010082
AZ323371975
AR927247608
CA22895167608
CO61594910025
CT82880913413
DE329182048
FL760878620
GA12394812915
ID436532611
IL2912329779035
IN144280526663
IA113187118614
KS93540820254
KY111336516592
LA1036867902
ME 5 3686 7902
MD8 17463 18341
MA 17 87449 25965
MI 19 51478 25686
MN 11 30762 20733
MS 9 848 6080
MO15 50022 8267
MT 4 4490 3562
NE71828011770
NV31003955
NH1692072737
NJ165867727631
NM316251662
NY47162260139277
NC13611316324
ND442503666
OH267789650778
OK111444215075
OR51174710951
PA3611908681114
RI4104013489
SC812477105
SD484834507
TN11988319829
TX 23 15341 37501
UT 4 4067 5318
VT 3 7241 2458
VA 11 10223 16783
WA 8 21370 15300
WV 8 13660 10235
WI 12 33796 20781
WY 3 2526 1533
Other 7 1586 545

Discussion

Based on the poll, The Literary Digest predicted that Landon would win the 1936 presidential election with 57.1% of the popular vote and an electoral college margin of 370 to 161. In fact, Roosevelt won the election with 60.8% of the popular vote (27,751,841 to 16,679,491) and an electoral college landslide of 523 to 8 (the largest ever in a presidential election). Roosevelt won 46 of 48 states, losing only Maine and Vermont.

The Literary Digest, using similar techniques, had correctly predicted the outcome of the last four presidential elections. But in this case, the magazine was not just wrong, it was spectacularly wrong. In part because of the subsequent loss of prestige and credibility, the magazine died just two years later.

What went wrong? Clearly the sample was skewed towards wealthier voters—those who could afford magazine subscriptions, cars, phones, and club memberships in the depths of the Great Depression. This sort of bias would not matter if wealthier voters behaved in a similar manner to voters as a whole (as was basically the case in the previous four elections). But in 1936, at a time of great tension between economic classes, this was definitely not the case.

Another problem, not easily understood, is self-selection bias. Were the voters who chose to return the questionnaires different, in terms of how they planned to vote, from the voters who did not respond?

Sources and Resources

Download Data

Click on the link below to download the data in tab-separated text format. This is a standard formats that can be imported into most statistical and spreadsheet software.