Louis Harris, Pollster Who Guided Kennedy to Victory, Dies at 95

  • Advised JFK on his public image and chances of beating Nixon
  • He saw survey research as a powerful tool for politicians

Louis Harris, the U.S. pollster whose political insights helped steer John F. Kennedy’s successful bid for the presidency in 1960 and hundreds of other Democratic campaigns for public office, has died. He was 95.

He died Dec. 17 at his home in Key West, Florida, the New York Times reported, citing his grandson, Zachary Louis Harris.

Louis Harris

Photographer: Mel Finkelstein/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

The former U.S. Navy reservist made his mark on America’s political landscape after advising Kennedy on his public image and electoral chances against Republican nominee Richard Nixon. Harris’s polling persuaded Kennedy to challenge Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic primary in West Virginia to prove to the party that a Catholic could win in a Protestant state.

Harris later coached the Massachusetts senator on how to conduct himself in four televised debates against Nixon that were seen as crucial in deciding the presidential race. Kennedy won a close election with 49.7 percent of the popular vote.

“Survey research is a powerful instrument of intelligence and counsel for the candidate running for office, whether for mayor, congressmen, U.S. senator, governor or president,” Harris wrote in Public Opinion Quarterly in 1963.

Hidden Bias

The man who lent his name to the Harris Poll broke with the traditional approaches of George Gallup and Elmo Roper by probing the underlying attitudes of respondents and using the data to advise private clients. While employed by CBS television in the 1960s, he developed a polling technique known as Vote Profile Analysis, which focused on specific precincts whose voting trends could be extrapolated to call election results.

Harris and his door-knocking employees at New York-based Louis Harris & Associates Inc. used hour-long interviews of ordinary Americans to collate the data that assisted clients such as New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. and California Governor Pat Brown, who won their respective races.

The pollster also distinguished himself from competitors after he predicted the 1980 election that pitted Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s decisive victory gave Republicans control of the Senate for the first time in 28 years.

“My neck was out by a mile,” Harris said in a 1980 interview with the Christian Science Monitor. “I was the only pollster to say that Ronald Reagan would win.”

Early Years

Harris was born Jan. 6, 1921, in New Haven, Connecticut, to Harry Harris, a real-estate developer, and the former Frances Smith. He had two older sisters, Evelyn and Sylvia.

Harris earned a Bachelor of Economics degree from the University of North Carolina in 1942 before serving in the Navy during World War II. As a program director for the American Veterans Committee after the war, he met Roper and became a writer, researcher and partner at his polling company.

In 1956, the young pollster founded Louis Harris & Associates and helped Kennedy on his re-election campaign in Massachusetts two years later. Harris then joined Kennedy’s strategy committee, which included the future president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, and their father, Joseph.

“He was the easiest client I’ve ever had to communicate with,” Harris said of Kennedy in an interview with Pollster.com in 2009. “You could talk right to the heart of a problem, or issues or polls or numbers, and he’d read them just like that.”

CBS Analyst

Harris replaced Roper as public-opinion analyst at CBS in 1962 and started as a columnist at Newsweek and the Washington Post the following year. In 1969, he became a columnist at the Chicago Tribune, where he worked for almost two decades. He continued to do occasional door-to-door voter surveys himself.

“People will tell you all about themselves -- sex, money, you name it,” Harris said in a 1976 interview with People magazine. “We live in a lonely society. It’s flattering to people when a poll-taker writes down what they say.”

In 1969, Louis Harris & Associates was acquired by New York-based brokerage Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, where Harris had a seat on the board of directors. The polling unit was sold six years later to Gannett Co. Harris left in 1992 to start a consulting firm, LH Research, with Wagner, who was mayor of New York City for more than a decade.

In 1996, the pollster’s former company was bought by Rochester, New York-based Gordon S. Black Corp. and later became Harris Interactive Inc., when it went public in 1999. Nielsen Holdings NV purchased it in 2014 for $110 million.

Harris was married to the former Florence Yard for more than 60 years until her death in 2004. They had a daughter, Susan, and two sons, Peter and Richard.

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