In the 19th century, leaders didn’t need opinion polls because speedy news would have to wait for television and CNN. Whatever happened, happened, and THEN the country (meaning, people like you and me) found out about it.
When did opinion polls begin? Well, in the 19th century, the first such poll was conducted by The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian in 1824 to show that Andrew Jackson was leading John Quincy Adams. It was a simple poll with one point and a small voter base. Woodrow Wilson was the subject of another small poll in 1916 and in 1936, the Literary Digest ran a poll, this time with 2.3 million voters, however they were generally more affluent Americans who tended to have conservative or Republican sympathies (rich people, probably with financial interests in oil). Great-Grandpa was probably a democrat.
What about today? Well, today the opinion polls are necessary largely due to that annoying thing called television. If Wilson's day had television, then everyone would have known immediately about our invasion of the newly soviet Russia who de-privatized ownership of oil fields, much to Standard Oil Company's distastes. What? Surprised? 1918, Russian invasion... didn't you read about this in school? Neither did I. Actually, neither did Congress in 1918 (slight unconstitutional booboo there). They could've used a TV, I tell ya. Executive power grew in the early 20th century and virtually ripped control from them, reducing the power structure from a pesky 535 to only 1. Afterwards, the power(s) that be hated the invention of the television... at first. They still depended on public opinion, but now that opinion was easily generated and easily broadcast. Watch any good newscasts on Vietnam lately? Boy, was that embarrassing for Johnson? Congress/President had to adapt to provide the services that conservative businesses still demanded. Today, I think you'll agree that it works for them much more than it works against them.
Meanwhile, Grandpa (third generation) was still working the plow, probably another good family democrat. Still happily plowing that same field, most likely.
Here’s another most annoying question (back to the 19th century... I know, I'm bouncing here)… whose opinion would have been polled, anyway? Who was allowed to vote? To be sure, this was not exactly a democratic system, was it? Did African Americans have a say in the administration before the Civil War? How about after the failure of Reconstruction? Did Indians vote for their own removal? No. That simply wasn’t the pattern, here. Public opinion didn’t mean a hill of beans, or wouldn’t have, at least not to everyone involved, only those that mattered. Manifest Destiny assured us of a right to this land. I was going to say “our” right, but that was simply my programmed instinct… not reality. We weren’t happy about how Wounded Knee was done and legislated to prevent future massacres. Of course, by then, the Indian was nearly a memory. Railroads crisscrossed native lands all over America.
Ok... that was awful and embarrassing. But, we still hide from it today by not teaching this part of our history in school, a white lie about how we got here. We don't want our children to know how naughty we were. But, they HAVE TO KNOW. Their opinion will make a difference one day.