THE SYSTEMATIC study of public opinion in the United States goes back only five decades, beginning with the polling of scientifically selected random samples of the population by George Gallup and others in the 1930s. But making sense of poll results is not just a science but something of an art. One of the outstanding practitioners of the art of understanding American opinion was Samuel Lubell, who died in Los Angeles last week.
Mr. Lubell, who came to New York from Russia as an immigrant, began his career as a reporter, working briefly at this newspaper in the 1930s. Except for wartime service in government agencies, he was in journalism, often as a free-lancer, for nearly 40 years. While Mr. Gallup and others were measuring public opinion quantitatively, Mr. Lubell invented his own qualitative technique. Using election returns, he would isolate precincts where the swing from one party to another was especially large. Then he would walk those precincts, talking to voters in their living rooms and over their doorsteps, questioning them in depth and listening to their answers. He was sensitive to the responses of different ethnic groups, to relations between races, to hidden resentments that lay beneath the standard political rhetoric.
The columns and books that resulted helped tell the nation how the Roosevelt New Deal coalition came together and how it split apart, how the civil rights revolution affected voting and public opinion in both North and South and how the tragedy of war shaped voting behavior and elections for years after fighting ended. His book "The Future of American Politics" remains a definitive account of the period from the 1930s to the 1950s. Samuel Lubell's work has proved more enduring than most journalism and more broad gauged than most political science. His voice was stilled by serious illness a decade ago, but the work has lessons that remain worth learning.