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Building a Business of Polling

It is in the search for political intelligence in a radio age that scientific polling first became a valued tool in American politics. As in the case of radio itself, polling was the domain of a new kind of expert: the specialist in survey research. In fact, the development of polling was the work of three overlapping sets of actors dedicated to the perfection of polling methods and their promotion across a range of activities and enterprises. The first group, market researchers, worked in business schools and advertising firms, where they developed new techniques for mapping patterns of consumer behavior. Radio was a particularly important area of focus for this group as efforts to measure audience size and listening habits spawned important innovations in survey methods. The second group, commercial pollsters, grew directly out of market research. By applying survey methods to a broad range of social questions, political issues, and election-year forecasts, pollsters built a thriving commercial business measuring the public pulse. The ability to poll a national sample quickly and relatively cheaply brought pollsters in contact with a third group, social scientists studying the effects of mass communication. Research into how radio shaped political behavior attracted the attention of these early students of public opinion who, lacking the basic infrastructure to field large-scale social surveys on their own, turned to commercial pollsters for technical expertise and support. Together, this network of scholars and practitioners found common purpose in the development and application of survey techniques that could provide a more reliable map of individual opinions, whether for the purpose of social scientific study or in the promotion of a consumer product.

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