An incomplete timeline of measuring
the public and public opinion

By Mark Bloch


Archeologists have found ancient census records from the Egyptians dating back as far as 3000 BC. The word "census" is Latin, and it means to "tax." [i]

The Old Testament tells of an unauthorized census demanded by King David of the people of Israel and Judah.  Because of the biblical account of a corresponding plague that killed 70,000, much of western civilization shied away from the census for fear of offending God. Not until Quebec and Nova Scotia initiated a census in 1665 did people begin to overcome that fear. [ii]

The formalized tabulation of political opinions began in the city-states of ancient Greece. Plato was less sympathetic than Aristotle to the general concept of a public opinion. Aristotle believed that a collective will of the people would evolve over time. [iii]

The first recorded census took place in the 5th century B.C. in Rome. The population was counted and divided into classes according to wealth. [iv]


During the reign of Caesar Augustus, the census was taken every 5 years. Families were to travel to the city of the husband’s heritage for the purposes of taxation. This was the census that called Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. [v]

1086 AD

The census was discontinued at the collapse of the Roman Empire. William the Conqueror took a single census in 1086 to determine what taxes he could collect for the sake of defending England against Danish invaders. This one-time census was never truly completed, the work ceasing with the death of Augustus in 1087. [vi]

In the Middle Ages the idea of a public persona developed as opposed to the private and secret self but there was still the absence of a clean definition of the word “public”. [vii]

16th c

By the 16th century the technology of printing diffused ideas in written form for the first time. Previously concepts were transmitted orally from one individual to another. After printing developed the world was connected by ideas not proximity as the defining factor. [viii]

Also in the 16th century Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince and The Discourse were published, which were very concerned with a ruler’s relationship to public opinion and how one should seem humane to the masses. Superficial appearances matter most of all according to Machiavelli. [ix]

Thomas Hobbes’1651 book Leviathan established the important step of identifying conscience with opinion rendering it inconsequential. His devaluing of religious conviction actually increased the importance of private convictions. [x]

John Locke ranked the "law of opinion" alongside divine and state law in his 1690 Essay concerning Human Understanding. [xi] “The law of opinion or reputation” is one of the three laws that govern people. [xii]

In 1640 the first petitions of Parliament emerged in England. Unruly mobs delivered them to their rulers, often angry and bordering on violence, reminiscent of the “tea party” gatherings we see today. Thus was a statue passed 1648 that no more than 20 people could deliver petitions. By 1698 it was declared that only members of Parliament delivered the petitions not citizens,  foreshadowing perceived control the state would eventually have over determining “public” opinion according to some including Habermas, Foucault and others in the 20th century. [xiii]

In 1665 Great Britain, an increase in foreign trade, the growth of the insurance industry and  a very problematic surge in deaths from the Great Plague increased the use of social statistics. Throughout the late 17th century, statistics about the population, and birth and death rates in London circulate widely and became known as “Political Arithmetic” based on the writings by William Petty who applies numbers to social affairs. [xiv]

17th c

In the 17TH century in France, riots, parades, and comic public rituals were used to express the restless will of people in public places. Meanwhile the French Monarchy studied population surveys but does not publicize the results. [xv]

Iceland, Germany and Sweden each hosted their own census in the early to mid-18th century. Still, religious groups in the US delayed a census in this country until 1790 when President George Washington commissioned a census that made history with both the size of the territory covered and the scope of the information gathered. [xvi]

18th c

It was in the 18th century when he words “Public”, “publicness”, “publicity”, “public sphere” and “public opinion” were commonly used for the first time. Jean-Jacques Rousseau,in his influential 1762 treatise The Social Contract, outlined a version of social contract theory, based on popular sovereignty. [xvii]

The concept of enlightened public opinion emerged in the 18th century Parisian salons where writers, statesmen, and artists would gather to discuss books and ideas. Middle and upper class gatherings were held frequently for the first time in which outsiders to government would criticize the state. This eventually led to the circulation of newspapers, and political cartoons that when combined with the parades begun in the 17th century, led to the unrest that became the French revolution. [xviii]

According to John Durham Peters in 1995, the first disenchantments regarding the omnipotence of the public and public opinion also appeared as early as the end of the eighteenth century. [xix]

In the 18th and 19th century quantification became a significant element of political discourse in the west.  Quantification was used to assess needs and opinions of the populace and make predictions. [xx]

In 1791 The Statistical Account of Scotland by John Sinclair was begun in the form of 160 questions mailed to clergymen. Eventually 21 volumes were published. [xxi]

In 1787 Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution requires that a census of the population be conducted every ten years so that the representatives in Congress and direct taxes might be apportioned.[xxii]

In 1790, Federal marshals conduct the first census by going door-to-door through the 13 states. The census is completed in 18 months at a cost of $45,000. The census counts 3.9 million people. [xxiii]

18th century rationalism great faith in the enlightened public opinion. [xxiv]

In his 1795 essay Perpetual Peace, publicity is defined by Emmanuel Kant as a transcendental concept of public right. “All actions affecting the rights of other human beings are wrong if their maxim is not compatible with being made public.” [xxv]

19th c

In the US, the 1820s saw early straw polls and attendance at political rallies rise. [xxvi]

In 1824 the Harrisburg Pennsylvanian and Raleigh Star publish results of canvassing at political meetings at which “sense of the people was taken” about presidential candidates. This stirred up interest from journalists.[xxvii]

English author William A. Mackinnon, in one of the first monographs ever written on public opinion, says the relationship between citizens and authorities will secure liberal government. He defined public opinion as “that sentiment on any given subject which is entertained by the best informed, most intelligent, and most moral persons in the community.” [xxviii]

In 1842 Karl Marx considers the press the “the common means of individuals to communicate their mental existence.” He believed in a separation of state and society that corresponded to the separation of the public and private person. [xxix]

A few years later Abraham Lincoln said government of, by, and for the people “shall not perish from the earth”. [xxx]

Straw poll use rose from 1856-1936. One man traveled extensively in the summer of 1856 and polled 2886 people and published the results in the NY Times. Widespread political involvement in the 19th century was thought to be important so the development of the straw poll made perfect sense. It enabled reporters and partisians to get a feel for a candidate’s chances in upcoming elections. They were conducted orally or with pen and paper which was not replaced by statistical sampling until decades later by Gallup when polling became more accurate. [xxxi]

James Bryce in 1891 published the encyclopedic American Commonwealth and discusses relationship between press and public opinion asks  “How is the will of the majority to be ascertained except by counting votes?” He considered public opinion to be an institution like the branches of government, not a phantom, as Walter Lippman will later call it. [xxxii]

Mid 19th century Tocqueville writes about tyranny of the majority which extended the Federalist Papers in the USA. [xxxiii]

19th century “statist” liberals associate calculation with progressive social reform. [xxxiv]

Benjamin Ginsberg says polls domesticated a volatile public starting in the 18th and 19th centuiries. [xxxv] There was a shift at this time from public rule to public tolerance of leaders, a new relationship between the public and the government. [xxxvi]

A Parisian parlor game is believed to have been popularized by the daughter of the 19th-century French president Félix Faure. “Antoinette Faure’s Album”—a red leather journal adorned with an ornate, blind-embossed trellis—contained entries from many in Faure’s social circle. She would invite friends over for tea and then ask each an identical sequence of questions: “[What is] your favourite virtue?… Your idea of misery?… Your present state of mind?,” and so forth. They would all answer, in longhand, in her little red book. Marcel Proust, who twice filled out Faure’s form with precocious gusto—at ages 14 and 20—subsequently published his answers as “Salon Confidences Written by Marcel,” in an 1892 article in La Revue Illustrée XV. It has become known as the Proust Questionnaire. [xxxvii]

1850- In the U.S. all free persons, rather than just the head of house, are recorded by name, along with their occupation and place of birth. Questions on social issues—taxation, churches, poverty, and crime—are added to the census. [xxxviii]

1890- For the first time simple machines are used to tabulate census data. [xxxix]

Early 20th c

1914- William Bauer, a German historian, writes a history of public opinion “a complete history has never been measured”.[xl]

In his groundbreaking 1922 Sociology of Religion, German Max Weber wrote extensively about the roles of calculation and rationality in social life. To Max Weber, a giant of early 20th century sociological methodology, rationalization “comprises the intellectual clarification, specification and systemization of ideas” and from this point on formal rationality (measuring) becomes encoded in the ideas and practices of a culture.[xli]

1916- Literary Digest asks readers to send in information about public support for Presidential candidates Woodrow Wilson and Charles Evans Hughes. They began mailing out of straw ballots sent to names from auto registration lists and phone directories. [xlii]

1922- Walter Lippman writes about public opinion “since it is supposed to be the prime mover in democracies one might reasonably expect to find a vast literature, one does not find it” [xliii]

National Conference on the Science Of Politics in the US in 1924 concludes it would be wise to “avoid the term public opinion if possible.” [xliv]

1927 A distinction between the public and the private is defined by John Dewey—including the notion of the public as a political state. [xlv]

The Lippmann-Dewey Controversy ensues: Dewey thought an actively involved public was an essential element of democracy while Lippman believed it was better to leave the decision making to best qualified individuals. [xlvi]

Lippman says public opinion is a projection of media or elite opinion, a “phantom”  by those who wish to legitimatize positions and actions. [xlvii]

Literary digest 1920s and 1930s mailed and tabulated millions of ballots. Published cartoons in other newspapers showed the impact.  The polling in this period included women before they were given tbe right to vote in 1920. [xlviii]


Until the election of 1936 people polled themselves at drug stores; factory workers were polled at work as were students and faculty at universities. All sent in their results to the NY Times and Chicago Times and Chicago Tribune. [xlix]

People’s Polls ended in 1936 when newspapers took interest in impartial and non-partisian precision polls ushering in a shift from citizens and even journalists with no training to statisticians. [l]

1930s first modern opinion polls have three ancestors: 1) British studies of political candidates; 2) psychological studies of attitudes; 3) marketing research. [li]

Development of the sample survey in the 1930s included 1) random samples of the population; 2) standardized interviewing and 3) employment of computers for efficient data analysis. [lii]

From 1940 on, polls are synonymous with public opinion. Salons and living room discussions are  not considered. [liii]

In the 30s and 40s Congressmen commissioned polls for the first time. Polling increased during the Great Depression and WWII. Universities establish centers for survey research after WWII. [liv]

At the Market Research Council in N.Y. in 1936. MIT professor Robert Elder spoke about the new the Audimeter for radio measurement and Arthur Nielsen snapped up rights to the device. [lv]

In An Introduction to Public Opinion, Harwood L. Childs said in 1939 about the words “public” and “opinion”, “There are about as many definitions as there are studies in the field.” By 1965, Harwood Childs surveyed the literature and identified 50 distinct definitions. [lvi]

1935 Pre-election polls for Fortune magazine by Elmo Roper. George Gallop sells polls to a few subscribing newspapers polls and Gallop and Louis Harris soon after syndicates polls. [lvii]

1936 Literary Digest ends practice of mailing out of straw ballots sent to names from auto registration lists and phone directories when Alf Landon is predicted to be landslide winner over FDR. [lviii]

Margaret Mead strongly believed that the press has the power to trigger pathological behavior and that responsible public officials, editors, and journalists ought not to be accused of censorship if they agree to withhold news that might incite violence. [lix]

1937- Public Opinion Quarterly founded. [lx]

Jean Paul Sartre calls public  opinion polls “the serialization of individuals.” [lxi]

1948- polling debacle following the famous headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” [lxii]


In 1950, for the first time an electronic computer, UNIVAC I, is used to help tabulate US Census results. [lxiii]

In 1950 there were 48 commercial TV stations broadcasting to 4.2 million TV homes. The Nielsen Television Index (NTI) began service in 1950 based on a nationwide sample of 300 households, which grew to 450 households in 1951 and 700 in 1953. [lxiv]

In 1953, 48 of 438 congressmen used polls. Younger reps more likely to do so. [lxv]

In the late 50s political scientists, like cultural anthropologists began to study political symbols like 50s and 60s civil rights, antiwar women’s liberation, importance of symbolic communication. [lxvi]

Neo Marxists in the Frankfurt school like Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and Habermas: “instrumental rationality is woven into the fabric of corporate capitalism.” Habermas says the term public opinion is time-bound and meaningless. [lxvii]

1967 CBS forms its own in house polling operation. NBC and ABC follow. [lxviii]


1972 article by Bordieu: “public opinion doesn’t exist.” [lxix]

In 1973 Nielsen engineers building a small computer into each udiometer to store television tuning information for several days for channel, time of day, and duration of tuning and automatically downloading the data to Nielsen's computers at night beginning the period of overnight ratings available 52 weeks a year.[lxx]

1974 Phillip Meyer of Knight Newspapers writes Precision Journalism and summer workshops are begun to teach scientific polling. Two major organizations conducted 3 polls in 72 election year; by 1980 7 conducted 122 and 8 conducted 259 in 1988. [lxxi]

1975  CBS and New York Times create formal polling partnership. [lxxii]

1976 Horse race polls dominates coverage hereafter—strategy and tactics stories. [lxxiii]


1980s France polls more than double in the decade  373 to 714, more than the US. [lxxiv]

1984 The Spiral of Silence by Noelle Newman posits that societal concensus binds individuals but also oppresses them, she says a fear of isolating themselves forces humans to assess the climate of opinion around them. She highlights the social orientation of individuals. Newman is credited with bringing together research in public opinion, theory and mass communication research that had become disconnected. [lxxv]

Michel Foucault (1926-84) French social theorist hearkens back to Max Weber and also the Frankfurt School and says “rationalization central to historical explorations of social practice.” He posits a Panopticon: a place where one is observed but cannot see society; a place not of spectacle but of surveillance. His conceptualization of power that power is a set of practices, a strategy exercized rather than possessed. [lxxvi]

312 polls were conducted from 1975-1986. [lxxvii]

1988 NY Times: CBS interviews 80 thousand people in 30 polls for 1.5 million dollars. [lxxviii]


In 1990 CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN teamed up to create one exit polling organization. [lxxix]

The 1990 census is the first to be less accurate than the one preceding it (an estimated 8.4 million people are missed while another 4.4 million are counted twice). The problem is partly blamed on declining census participation: the response rate for Census 1990 is only 65%.[lxxx]

In the 1995 The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas speaks of a manipulated or managed public sphere, in which the media bestow aura and prestige upon authorities similar to that bestowed on royal figures under feudalism. [lxxxi]

J.B. Thompson in 1990 in Ideology and Modern Culture, and in 1995 The media and modernity: A social theory of the media warns against exagerrating the passivity of individuals when faced by Habermas stating that the opportunity limited to control the conditions of receiving messages and ways of their being interpreted by their receivers in the face of mass media. “The development of mass communication  has created new opportunities for the production  and diffusion of images and messages which…precludes any serious comparison with the theatrical practices of feudal courts.” [lxxxii]

1999- The Supreme Court rules that statistical sampling—which allows for the estimation of certain populations, such as the homeless or minorities—cannot not be used to apportion congressional seats, although it can be used for other purposes. [lxxxiii]

21st c

About 120 million Americans -- 60 percent of eligible voters -- cast ballots in the presidential election of 2004.

May 4, 2006- Nearly one in 10 Americans have voted on this season of "American Idol," and 35 percent of voters believe their vote to send someone off the "Idol" stage counts at least as much as their vote to send someone to the White House, according to a survey released on Wednesday…."Idol" voters can vote as many times as they like. [lxxxiv]

Total number of votes cast in all 2008 Democratic presidential primaries: 35,216,531[lxxxv]

2008--In a record vote, David Cook won by 12 million, host Ryan Seacrest announced in the two-hour-plus finale.  Number of votes cast in the 2008 American Idol finale: 97.5 million (up from 74 million in 2007)[lxxxvi]

June 10, 2009--…On “I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!”… “The Biggest Loser” and … “Dancing With the Stars.” … fans…devote hours to sending blocks of votes into the “American Idol” polls. But the growing role of block voting also threatens to disenfranchise… demonstrated by Erika McMahan of Conway, Ark., who with two of her friends sent in 11,700 votes by text message on the final night of this year’s “American Idol”.

The total number of votes cast this season, 624 million, was up by 25 percent from four years ago. During the same period the estimated average viewership of each performance episode fell more than 9 percent, to 25 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The votes cast in each year’s season finale rose even more quickly, by 67 percent over the last four years, to 100 million this year. [lxxxvii]

May 2010- Over half a million users rallied on a Facebook page called "Betty White to Host SNL (please?)!" to persuade Saturday Night Live…(to choose White as)  headliner on a special Mother's Day episode.  The show attracted 12.1 million viewers, the best ratings in over a year for the sketch comedy show. [lxxxviii]

Data collection systems from Nielsen Media Research, including metering and software technologies under development, can keep pace with hundreds of channels– broadcast or cable, analog or digital, satellite or terrestrial, PC or TV delivered– scanning every channel every 2.7 seconds to accurately report the tuning status of every television set within the sample. It can use the conventional phone line to download data, or it can use cellular. The data are then transformed into the “overnight” ratings and are reported the next morning. [lxxxix]


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