Louis Harris dies at 95


Louis Harris, the nation’s best-known 20th-century pollster, who refined interpretive polling methods and took the pulse of voters and consumers through four decades of elections, wars, racial troubles and cultural revolutions that ran from tail fins to the internet, died on Saturday at his home in Key West, Fla. He was 95.

His death was confirmed by a grandson, Zachary Louis Harris.

From the 1950s, when he founded Louis Harris & Associates, until he retired in the early 1990s, Mr. Harris with remarkable accuracy forecast the elections of presidents, governors, members of Congress and scores of other public officials. Along the way, he used polls to sharpen their images, change their speech patterns and focus their attention on issues of interest to voters.

He told companies how to market products and services, and conducted polls for industry groups, religious organizations, colleges, unions, banks and government agencies.

He also documented trends in American life, from the women’s movement and the ups and downs of the economy to evolving attitudes about marriage, religion, the arts and countless other matters.

He preferred to be called a public-opinion analyst rather than a pollster, a word that he believed trivialized what he did, which went beyond gathering data into new realms of interpretation — useful to clients of his consulting firm and more meaningful to millions who watched his analyses on the CBS and ABC television networks or who read his nationally syndicated newspaper and magazine columns.

His results were sometimes wrong. And critics questioned his early practice of using his polls to promote candidates — notably John F. Kennedy in his 1960 presidential race — for whom he worked as a campaign strategist. But he gave up political advocacy after a few years to concentrate on public polling and analyses for the newspaper and television jobs that made him a household name in America.

In the 1960s, he developed television’s ability to project national election winners on the basis of early returns after polls closed in the East. But critics said projections before the polls closed in the West discouraged some voters from casting ballots, and the networks voluntarily ended the practice.

Mr. Harris denied that his work affected the outcome of elections or corrupted voting processes. He rejected charges that he was too commercial, although he made a fortune in market research. And he scoffed at accusations that his polls reflected a liberal Democratic bias; he said he often worked for Republicans and was guided by principles of fairness and accuracy.

Like Elmo Roper and George Gallup, his pioneering predecessors, Mr. Harris plumbed attitudes with face-to-face interviews, using carefully worded questions put by trained interviewers to subjects selected as part of a group that was chosen as 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.)

But the Harris methods were more sophisticated than those of Mr. Roper, a Depression- and World War II-era researcher, who first developed scientific polling techniques, and who was a mentor to Mr. Harris early in his career.

Mr. Harris phrased questions to better understand what people really thought. He did not seek simple “yes” or “no” answers; his criteria for picking representative subjects were more precise, and his analyses of data were more meaningful. And unlike Dr. Gallup, who refused to conduct private polls for politicians, Mr. Harris embraced political advocacy early in his career.

In 1956, after nearly a decade as a protégé and partner of Mr. Roper, he founded Louis Harris & Associates. The bulk of the company’s early work was market research for concerns like Johnson & Johnson, American Airlines, Standard Oil and the New York Stock Exchange.

But his work drew the attention of the syndicated columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop, and an avalanche of political work ensued. Over seven years, Mr. Harris worked for Democratic and Republican candidates in 214 campaigns in all 50 states, including 45 of 100 United States senators and half the nation’s governors.

His most prominent client was John Kennedy, who hired him in 1958 to help his Senate re-election campaign. A year later, Mr. Harris helped persuade him to run for president, and became a key strategist, advising him to discuss his Roman Catholicism openly and take a stand on civil rights. Preparing for debates with Richard M. Nixon, Mr. Harris urged the youthful-looking Kennedy to give three-part answers to every question to promote an image of maturity, and advised him to slow his rapid speech to project a warmer personality.

He fit in nicely with the Kennedy crowd: A ruggedly handsome, athletic man with a square jaw and a high forehead, he shared the clan’s fascination with politics and its comfortable blend of intelligence, wit and charm. He and Kennedy had both been in the wartime Navy, loved to swim and were at home on a beach or a sailboat, and they were both good at winning the trust of strangers.

Mr. Harris also worked on campaigns for Mayor Robert F. Wagner of New York, Senator Frank Church of Idaho, Senators John Sherman Cooper and Thruston B. Morton of Kentucky and many others. In 1962, he helped Gov. Edmund G. Brown defeat Nixon in the California governor’s race.

By 1963, however, Mr. Harris had given up political advocacy to become a syndicated columnist and a public-opinion analyst for CBS News. Besides polling and appearing on the air, he developed Voter Profile Analysis, a model of national and state voting patterns by ethnic, religious and economic blocs that he used to predict election results with astonishing success, starting in 1964.

From 1963 to 1968, Mr. 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 Nixon resigned in the Watergate scandal. In 1980 he foretold Ronald Reagan’s election as president, and in 1990 he found that President George Bush might not be re-elected. (He lost to Bill Clinton in 1992.) Harris surveys on the attitudes of black and white people became landmarks in race relations.

His books, on politics, racial issues and national trends, included “Is There a Republican Majority?” (1954), “The Negro Revolution in America” (1964, with William Brink), “Black and White” (1967), “Black-Jewish Relations in New York City: The Anguish of Change” (1973) and “Inside America” (1987).

Louis Harris & Associates was sold to the investment firm Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette in 1969, and again to Gannett in 1975. Despite the ownership changes, Mr. Harris continued as chief executive until he retired in 1992. In 1996, a merger of Louis Harris & Associates and the Gordon S. Black Corporation produced Harris Interactive, a global market research company based in Rochester and New York City.

Humphrey Taylor, chairman of Harris Interactive’s Harris Poll, who was Mr. Harris’s deputy for years and his successor at Louis Harris & Associates, called Mr. Harris “a true original, who pushed the envelope beyond any of his predecessors in the design and use of surveys.”

Mr. Harris was born on Jan. 6, 1921, in New Haven, one of three children of Harry Harris, a real estate developer, and the former Frances Smith.

He became interested in politics and journalism in high school, and after graduating in 1938 attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After earning a degree in economics in 1942, he joined the Navy and became a junior officer on patrol boats in the North Atlantic.

In 1943, he married Florence Yard. She died in 2004. He is survived by their children, Peter, Richard and Susan Yard Harris, and four grandchildren.

Mr. Harris ran his first poll in 1945. Stationed at Boston, he was asked by the Navy to determine if sailors there were being treated properly. He found that morale was low, and that sailors felt neglected by the Navy and exploited by the local citizenry.

After a year as a researcher with a veterans’ organization, Mr. Harris went to work for Mr. Roper in 1947. He wrote his boss’s newspaper columns and radio scripts until 1951, when he became a partner, concentrating on political research. He left Roper five years later to form his own polling organization.

In a 2009 interview, Mr. Harris defended his efforts to influence political decisions.

“The key is — and this I feel more deeply than anything else,” he said, “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.”