Can you name one person born in Michigan's Upper Peninsula who has made the cover of Time magazine? How about Emil Hurja (1892-1953) of Crystal Falls, whose picture graced the cover of Time magazine in March of 1936? Hurja was Franklin Roosevelt's private pollster, the first man to systematically gather data on political behavior and use them to win elections.
More to the point, Hurja helped transform American politics: He paved the way for FDR to centralize power in Washington, and use patronage to sway voters.
Hurja (pronounced Hur-ya), the son of Finnish immigrants, grew up in mining country in Crystal Falls and graduated from high school there. Attracted to politics, Hurja became a newspaper reporter after graduating from college, and worked for the Democratic Party during Roosevelt's campaign for the presidency in 1932.
Political polling was almost unknown then, and Hurja studied samples of voters to decipher trends in the campaign and help FDR win votes. Assaying politics, Hurja explained, was like assaying ore back in Crystal Falls: "You take sections of voters, check new trends against past performances, establish percentage shift among different voting strata ... and you can accurately predict an election result."
When Hurja predicted—almost precisely—Roosevelt's popular and electoral vote in 1932, the novice pollster found a place in the new president's administration. He worked closely with FDR to strengthen the spoils system and shift power to the executive branch with the launching of the New Deal.
Just as Hurja's polling of different groups was changing the analysis of politics, so the flood of new government programs under FDR was changing the conduct of politics. Fresh subsidies for diverse groups, from farmers to silver miners, showed Hurja how transfer payments influenced voting behavior. He did regular polling and briefed Roosevelt on how his use of taxpayer dollars was winning voters to the Democratic Party.
The 1934 off-year elections were the first test of how thoroughly government largess was changing political loyalties. Hurja's polls showed a swing to the Democrats among the groups winning subsidies from Washington. Therefore, he broke down federal aid by congressional district and sent bulletins to Democratic candidates: "You can use this [information on the inflow of government money] any way you like," Hurja wrote them, "in speeches, radio talks, or interviews." When the Democrats surprisingly won substantial gains in Congress, Roosevelt claimed that Hurja's predictions and the Democrats' success were "the most remarkable thing" he had ever seen.
After 1934, Roosevelt's popularity, and the regular flow of new federal money, increased the president's power even more. With Hurja taking his regular polls and sending the news to the president, Roosevelt had the upper hand in his relationship with Congress. His programs and his endorsements shifted funds in and out of districts, and left senators and House members coming to Roosevelt with hats in hand.
The climax of Hurja's career was his active role in Roosevelt's landslide re-election in 1936. Hurja was quoted in many major magazines and his notoriety reached a peak when he made the cover of Time. In his polls, he studied trends and plotted results on maps of states and of the nation. Melvin Holli, author of "The Wizard of Washington," observes, "With Hurja's advice, . . . [James] Farley, who directed the flow of funds for the Democrats, would signal the announcement of new WPA (Works Progress Administration) projects and relief programs or designate speakers and campaign materials for those states that Hurja's notebook indicated were doubtful." Hurja even used WPA workers to do his polling.
Shortly after Roosevelt's landslide win, Hurja broke with the president. The pollster was especially upset with FDR's court-packing scheme and the trend toward an imperial presidency. Regretting his support for centralized government, Hurja became a Republican. In fact, he returned to Crystal Falls in 1946 and ran for Congress in Michigan's 12th district. He lost his race, but he advised other Republicans and thereby helped that party take control of Congress.
Yes, Hurja admitted, he trusted too much in Roosevelt, but he had the courage to admit his mistake and try to correct it. Known as the "Crystal Gazer from Crystal Falls," Emil Hurja was a local boy with a national impact.
(Burton Folsom, Ph.D. is historian in residence at the Center for the American Idea in Houston, Texas and an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.)