The Literary Digest

The Literary Digest was an influential American 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.

The Literary Digest
Cover of the 19 February 1921 edition of The Literary Digest
FounderIsaac Kaufmann Funk
First issue 1890 (1890-month)
Final issue1938
CompanyFunk & Wagnalls
CountryUnited States
Based inNew York City


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.[1] 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.[1]

A column in The Digest, known as "The Lexicographer's Easy Chair", was produced by Frank Horace Vizetelly.[2] Ewing Galloway as assistant editor at the publication.[3]

Presidential poll

The Literary Digest is best-remembered today for the circumstances surrounding its demise.

As it had done since 1916, it conducted a straw poll regarding the likely outcome of the 1936 presidential election, and prior to 1936, the poll had always correctly predicted the winner.

The 1936 poll showed that the Republican candidate, Governor Alfred Landon of Kansas, was likely to be the overwhelming winner.[4] This seemed plausible as the Republicans had fared well in Maine, and at the time, Maine's 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 (as they are today).

A Landon victory also seemed likely to some in light of the conventional wisdom at that time, "As Maine goes, so goes the nation", a saying coined because Maine was incorrectly regarded as a "bellwether" state which allegedly supported the winning candidate's party: Maine was merely a Republican state, and from 1860 to 1932, with only one exception, Maine voted for the Republican candidate for President. Maine did not vote for Grover Cleveland in 1884 or 1892, Woodrow Wilson in 1916, or for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, when they, as Democrats, won the election, which refuted any notion that Maine could somehow predict the election result.

In 1912, Maine had cast its electoral votes for Wilson, the Democrat, but that was the year Republicans split their votes between William Howard Taft, the Republican, and Theodore Roosevelt, the Bull Moose candidate.

In November, Landon only won Vermont and Maine, while President Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the other 46 states, and Landon's electoral vote total of eight is an equal-record low for any major-party nominee since the American political paradigm of the Democratic and Republican parties began in the 1850s. The Democrats joked, "As goes Maine, so goes Vermont," and the magazine was so discredited by this failure that it folded within two years.

In retrospect, the polling techniques employed by the magazine were to blame. Although it had polled ten million individuals (of whom about 2.4 million responded, an astronomical total for any opinion poll),[5] it had surveyed its own readers first, a group with disposable incomes well above the national average of the time (shown in part by their ability to afford a magazine subscription during the depths of the Great Depression), and two other readily available lists, those of registered automobile owners and that of telephone users, both of which were also wealthier than the average American at the time. Research published in 1972 and 1988 concluded that while non-response bias was the primary source of this error, their sampling frame was also quite different from the vast majority of voters.

George Gallup's American Institute of Public Opinion achieved national recognition by correctly predicting the result of the 1936 election, and also correctly predicted the (quite different) results of the Literary Digest poll to within about 1%, using a much smaller sample size of just 50,000.[5] Gallup's last poll before the election predicted Roosevelt would receive 56% of the popular vote; the official tally gave Roosevelt 60.8%.

This debacle led to a considerable refinement of public opinion polling techniques and later came to be regarded as ushering in the era of modern scientific public opinion research.

See also


  • Freedman, David; Pisani, Robert; Purves, Roger (2007). Statistics (4th ed.). New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-92972-8.
  1. "Press: Digest Digested". Time. 23 May 1938. Retrieved 8 March 2010.
  2. "A word a day Man: a biography". Biographical essay. Centre d'études du 19e siècle français Joseph Sablé. Archived from the original on 6 August 2010. Retrieved 18 October 2010.
  3. "Ewing Galloway Collection of Photographs". Special Collections Research Center. Syracuse University Library. Retrieved 4 June 2013.
  4. Straw Vote Fight Arouses Interest The Pittsburgh Press; November 2, 1936
  5. Freedman, et al.: 335-336
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