Lou Harris ’ 42 might not have be- come the nation’s best-known pollster
and pre-eminent public opinion analyst
had it not been for the 1941 election for
editor of The Daily Tar Heel.
One of the most influential nonpo-liticians in politics, Harris forecast with
remarkable accuracy the elections of presidents, governors, members of Congress
and scores of other public officials. There
were many times when politicians would
wait until they heard from him before
making a decision about running for office. He used polls to sharpen politicians’
images, change their speech patterns and
focus their attention on issues.
Companies consulted with him on
how to market products and services. He
documented trends in American life, from
the women’s movement and the ups and
downs of the economy to changing attitudes about marriage, religion and the arts.
“I think I have an impact on what
happens,” Harris once told a newspaper
reporter. “All the people we survey are
trying to tell us something. I guess the
greatest joy I get, professionally, is being
able to ask the questions that get out of
them what they are trying to say. And
second, to be able to interpret that.”
Harris died Dec. 17 at age 95.
The New Haven, Conn., native came
to UNC in part because of the tennis
team’s reputation. But he soon was drawn
to a stronger passion — writing for The
Daily Tar Heel. He lost the campaign for
editor of the DTH to Orville Campbell
’ 42, who went on to become publisher of
The Chapel Hill Weekly. Initially, Campbell’s victory margin was three votes out
of 3,000 cast. Several recounts increased
that margin to nine votes.
It was the only time Harris ran for
office, and it inspired his interest in finding out what influenced voters. “I stopped
asking for recounts and entered my field
to find out why I lost the election,” he
told The News & Observer in March 1984.
Like his pioneering predecessors,
George Gallup and Elmo Roper, Harris
plumbed attitudes with face-to-face inter-
LOUIS SMITH HARRIS ’ 42 1921–2016
Pollster Crunched Numbers to Explain Attitudes
posed by trained interviewers to subjects
selected as part of a group demographically
representative of the nation. (Telephone
interviews, faster and less expensive, came
into wide use in the late 1970s and proved
to be just as valid.)
In 1956, he founded Louis Harris &
Associates. The bulk of the company’s early
work was market research, but his work
drew the attention of syndicated columnists
Joseph and Stewart Alsop, attracting an avalanche of political work. Over seven years,
Harris worked for Democratic and Republican candidates in 214 campaigns in all 50
states, including 45 of 100 U.S. senators and
half the nation’s governors.
His most prominent client was John F.
Kennedy, who hired him in 1958 to help his
U.S. Senate re-election campaign. A year
later, Harris helped persuade Kennedy to
run for president and became a key strategist,
advising him to discuss his Roman Catholicism openly and take a stand on civil rights.
While employed by CBS television
in the 1960s, Harris developed a polling
technique known as Vote Profile Analysis,
focusing on specific precincts whose voting
trends could be extrapolated to call election
results. He developed television’s ability to
project national election winners on the
basis of early returns after polls closed in the
East. Critics said projections before the polls
closed in the West discouraged some voters
from casting ballots, and the networks voluntarily ended the practice.
From 1963 to 1968, Harris wrote syndicated columns for The Washington Post and
Newsweek, and from 1969 to 1988 he wrote
for The Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News
syndicate. His columns appeared in more
than 100 newspapers. He wrote for Time
magazine from 1969 to 1972. He later shifted his TV commentaries to ABC News.
Harris polls often made news. One in
1974 found that the Republicans could not
hold the White House unless President
Richard Nixon resigned during the Watergate scandal. In 1980, he foretold Ronald
Reagan’s election as president, and in 1990
he found that President George H. W. Bush
might not be re-elected.
His books, on politics, racial issues and
national trends, included Is There a Re-
publican Majority?, The Negro Revolution in
America and Inside America.
In 1976, Harris received the UNC
Distinguished Alumnus Award. He was
inducted into the N.C. Journalism Hall of
Fame in 1988.
UNC’s Louis Harris Data Center was
established in 1965 and is the national
depository for publicly available survey
data collected by Louis Harris & Associates Inc. More than 1,000 Harris Polls
from as early as 1958 are archived at the
center and contain more than 160,000
questions asked of more than 1. 2 million
As a student, besides being on The
DTH staff, Harris was involved with the
Hillel Foundation, student government
and Campus Y and was a member of
Golden Fleece and Tau Epsilon Phi. He
served in the Navy in World War II.
In a 2009 interview, Harris defended
his efforts to influence political decisions.
“The key is — and this I feel more
deeply than anything else — if you know
what people are trying to say, and it’s
something that may save the country if the
people running it know about it, can do
something about it, then you have a deep
obligation, a moral obligation, to take
what they have said, and get to know the
people that can do something about it.”
— Don Evans ’ 80
Harris on campus in 1965