The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lou Harris, pollster for presidents and others officeholders, dies at 95

Pollster Louis Harris in 1969. (Jim McNamara/The Washington Post)

Lou Harris, an influential pollster and political consultant who was among the first to provide polling services directly to candidates and officeholders and helped guide one client, a junior U.S. senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy, to the White House, died Dec. 17 at his home in Key West, Fla. He was 95.

The cause was a heart ailment, said a son, Peter Harris, a retired pollster who worked with his father.

Polling for much of its history was a public affair. Surveyors mined data from voters and released results without consulting with party bosses or candidates. Starting in the 1950s, Mr. Harris helped pioneer a new brand of private political surveying tailored to the needs of an individual client to quickly gauge public reaction to a candidate or a policy.

Mr. Harris was also on the vanguard of blending his polling business with his work as a political consultant. He considered himself a political analyst more than a pollster, differentiating himself from industry leaders such as George Gallup who believed the numbers should speak for themselves.

Mr. Harris once told People magazine that he did not think a pollster should be a numerical “scorekeeper” in the Gallup mold, likening that role to serving as a “political eunuch.”

“Digging beneath the surface to find out what people think,” he added, “is the obligation of public opinion research.”

As a political consultant for CBS News in the 1960s, Mr. Harris helped shape what Americans now know as the spectacle of televised election-night coverage by providing simultaneous analysis and predictions of election results earlier in the evening.

Pollster Peter D. Hart, who started his career at Louis Harris and Associates before going into business for himself in 1971, said Mr. Harris was an innovator on many fronts. “Lou was to political polling what Henry Ford was to the automobile industry,” he said.

After starting his polling firm in 1956, Mr. Harris supplied polling for 45 U.S. senators; 25 state governors, including California’s Edmund “Pat” Brown Sr. (D); a number of congressional lawmakers; mayors, including New York’s Robert F. Wagner Jr. (D); and city officials. Many office seekers sought Mr. Harris’s advice on how to shape their campaigns around certain issues, and others sought his approval before publicly announcing a bid.

Before the proliferation of telephone cold-calling, Mr. Harris honed an ingratiating style of questioning and personally interviewed 3,000 people in their homes. He avoided simple yes-or-no questions in favor of conversations that would last as long as 90 minutes.

“I’ve stood at bathroom doors, polling women inside taking baths,” he told People. “Once in a home a woman started breast-feeding her baby in front of me. I went on with the interview anyway. Then her husband appeared. He wasn’t too happy.”

Mr. Harris gained his greatest national reputation when he worked for Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election.

Kennedy was not an obvious front-runner at the start of the race. Kennedy feared, Mr. Harris later said, that his political career would be over if he lost to Sen. Hubert Humphrey in the primaries or to then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the general.

Victory in West Virginia, a key Democratic primary, seemed a long shot. The state was Protestant and poor, and Mr. Harris recognized liabilities in Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism and wealth. He had begun polling for Kennedy as early as 1958.

“We planned a three-pronged program,” Mr. Harris told Time magazine in 1962. “First, to show Kennedy really cared, he would tour the mining towns, and Franklin Roosevelt Jr. would come in to campaign for him, bringing back memories of FDR. Second, we would emphasize that the other Democratic hopefuls were ganging up on him. Thirdly, Kennedy would deal with the religion issue head-on.”

To do so, Mr. Harris organized the purchase of a TV spot across the state with Kennedy vowing never to take orders from the pope.

Kennedy triumphed in the primary, catapulting him to the party nomination. After his win in West Virginia, Kennedy quipped to Mr. Harris: “Lou, you got me into this. Now get me out.”

One of the other major hurdles of the race was the first nationally televised debate, between Kennedy and Nixon. To combat his client’s youthful appearance, Mr. Harris urged Kennedy to craft three-point responses to highlight his maturity. He also advised Kennedy to show more warmth and slow down his speaking delivery.

Kennedy’s tanned skin and vigorous performance contrasted vividly with the pallor of Nixon, who was recuperating from a staph infection. The program, which was watched by an estimated 70 million people, is widely seen as a decisive moment in the campaign and ultimately helped lead to Kennedy’s victory.

Mr. Harris, who once estimated that he had done about $700,000 worth of polling for the Kennedy campaign, continued to poll for Kennedy during his presidential term.

“Kennedy would be in a rage when I delivered results unfavorable to him, but he’d call back 15 minutes later and apologize,” Mr. Harris told People. “He and I were on the same wavelength. I could do more with him in four minutes than with others in 40.”

The Kennedy win against Nixon that November made Mr. Harris a force in his industry. He worked, by his count, on more than 200 campaigns before he shifted in 1963 away from private polling to focus more on public polling (through his weekly syndicated Harris Poll) and market research for companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Standard Oil of New Jersey, American Airlines and the National Football League.

Mr. Harris also created an affiliate called the National Research Center of the Arts to provide statistical research for cultural organizations.

Louis Harris was born in New Haven, Conn., on Jan. 6, 1921. He was 6 when his father, a real estate developer, died. Mr. Harris was a 1942 economics graduate of the University of North Carolina and served in the Navy in the North Atlantic during World War II.

One of his postwar Navy assignments was to survey sailors about the demobilization process. Following his discharge, he served as national program and research director for the American Veterans Committee. Pollster Elmo Roper sought Mr. Harris’s advice for a survey on veterans and, in 1947, hired him to write radio spots and columns about politics.

Mr. Harris became a partner at Elmo Roper & Associates but left to start his own firm in New York.

Mr. Harris often defended public polling as an instrument for public education on issues and trends, telling the New York Times in 1961 that “to object to political polling is to argue that politicians and the general public should be more poorly informed.” He believed it his duty to provide explanations of voter behavior to leaders, but he left it to politicians to use that information for the public good.

While working for CBS News in the early 1960s, Mr. Harris, with the help of IBM, developed a new method of analyzing election results more quickly and in depth. He improved the network’s election prediction by polling voting blocs ahead of the election and identifying precincts that mirrored the voting patterns of the rest of the state.

Mr. Harris later came to regret the impact of his prediction system, saying it may have unduly influenced voters where balloting was still occurring. “We’ve ruined election night for everyone,” he told People in 1976.

Mr. Harris sold his firm in 1969 to the investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. Gannett acquired the Harris firm in 1975 and owned it for 20 years. The Gordon S. Black Corp., a consulting firm, bought the now-renamed Harris Interactive in 1996 and took it public in 1999. Nielsen acquired Harris Interactive in 2014.

He was married to Florence Yard Harris for 60 years until her death in 2004; survivors include three children, Susan Harris of Westhampton, Mass., Peter Harris of Manhattan and Richard Harris of Woodland Park, Colo.; and four grandchildren.

In a career built on dispensing advice to politicians, Mr. Harris was not unexperienced with the rigors and fears of running for elective office. His one bid for editor in chief of the University of North Carolina student newspaper ended in defeat by three votes out of 3,000 cast.

“It was a heartbreaking election,” Mr. Harris told Time in 1962. “It was the first and last time I ever ran for office.”

Read more Washington Post obituaries