GEORGE Gallup Jr. thought for a minute, knitting an eyebrow, then barreled right into the question of whether public opinion data should play a big part in the nation's policymaking deliberations.
''In my judgment, the public often sides with principle in the position it takes, and its stand is a very important part of the whole process of making a decision - in fact essential in a democracy.''
Mr. Gallup's office is a mini-museum of American politics, with antique campaign buttons and other election memorabilia rather haphazardly displayed. And his response strikes a chord that echoes back through the country's history. There has always been a strongly held view that the people themselves, not leaders ensconced in Washington, are the source of political wisdom.The Jacksonian Democrats believed that, as have ''populists'' of all stripes. In our day, say some, the public opinion poll has become the channel through which that home-grown wisdom flows.
That channel, once a fairly orderly stream, has broadened into a torrent in recent years. Some 200 to 300 firms are in the polling business now. Most are tapping the huge United States market for advertising and product-related opinion research, estimated at between $750 million and $1 billion. A mere $20 million was spent on political polling in the 1980 campaign, but that represents a huge increase over the previous presidential elections, and the total is likely to surge this year.
What effect is all this having on the quality of American political leadership?
The view that it is having an unqualifiedly positive effect is most eloquently championed by George Gallup Sr., whose venerable polling organization nestles inconspicuously on a side street in the college town of Princeton, N.J.
The modern public opinion poll gives a voice to the ''inarticulate majority, '' the elder Gallup writes. Without this, he continues, ''legislators are constantly in danger of confusing minority with majority opinion.''
This position has its ardent supporters. Richard Scammon, political commentator and poll analyst, calls public opinion surveys ''the greatest invention for democracy since the direct primary.''
But the Gallup view also has its critics. ''Hogwash, actually,'' is the assessment of political scientist Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia. His 1981 book, ''The Rise of Political Consultants,'' includes a chapter sharply critical of the pollsters' role in the political process. We don't have a pure, or direct, democracy, Mr. Sabato argues, but a representative democracy built on the ability of leaders to give ''cues'' for national action.
Many politicians today are dependent on survey data, says Sabato. The result, he maintains, is leaders who may lead in name only - who have forsaken considered judgment in their passion to find out what the public wants them to say and do.
High in New York's Rockefeller Center, shiny brass letters proclaim the headquarters of Louis Harris & Associates (with smaller lettering noting its tie to the Gannett communications empire). Humphrey Taylor, president of the firm, sees little cause for alarm that polls will undermine political leadership. The assumption, he says in a precise Scottish accent, is that, before polls, politicians did what they thought was right without reference to public opinion.''Historically, you can find politicans going back to Cleon in ancient Greece, who fol-lowed rather than led.''
Mr. Scammon concurs. ''In 1880 the situation would have been the same. Politicians will always try to find out what public opinion is - same then as now.'' Besides, he adds, the idea of a politician following the public's view is not necessarily bad in a democracy.
In fact, no less a figure than Abraham Lincoln is said to have confided, ''What I want to get done is what the people desire to have done, and the question for me is how to find out exactly.''
Tom Cronin, a political scientist at Colorado College and a leading authority onthe American political system, finds some merit on both sides of this debate. He agrees that politicians have to be attentive to the wants and aspirations of the people. He found that polls could be very helpful when he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1982.
But he is also fond of quoting Winston Churchill's dictum on the polls: ''Nothing is more dangerous than to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup poll, always feeling one's pulse and taking one's temperature. . . . There is only one duty, only one safe course, and that is to try to be right and not to fear to do or say what you believe to be right.'' That, says Mr. Cronin, would make a nice plaque for any politician in the 1980s.
Everett Carll Ladd Jr., a veteran observer of public opinion surveying and head of the University of Connecticut's Roper Center, is concerned about ''a lack of respect for boundaries between what the public can do and what various leadership groups ought to do.'' When you talk about majority rule and the possibility of ''national referenda'' on issues, he says, it's well to remember that ''the public doesn't really know in many instances - it can't really make a decision. It seems that what we're dealing with is an implicit disregard of the practical reality of democracy.''
On the positive side, though, he has seen poll data dissolve unfounded assertions of what the people want. For example, the much-ballyhooed ''tax revolt'' of a few years ago brought numerous declarations that the public was throwing up its hands in anger at government. Mr. Ladd says survey findings at the time, however, indicated widespread support for expanding the role of government in many areas of American life.
What's cal ed for, perhaps, is an ability to keep Churchill's warning in mind while listening for the voice of the people as conveyed through surveys and other means. That listening demands discernment. The good leader, says Cronin, has to distinguish between the higher wants and needs of the people and their lower wants and needs. Hitler, he reminds us, responded to the latter.
Tomorrow: Polls and journalism.