By RICHARD HERTZ
Many of us dream of becoming the best at whatever we choose to do. Pollsters, especially those of us who conduct surveys of voters for news organizations, know that our work will be scrutinized for accuracy and compared with the results of each election.
Last year, Nate Silver, a respected political analyst whose 538 blog does a great job of breaking down polling and election numbers, conducted an extensive nationwide analysis that measured the comparative accuracy of thousands of political polls since 1998. In the #1 spot was the Field (California) Poll, which has long been the gold standard for measuring the opinions of Golden State residents.
The poll’s founder, Mervin Field, now 90 and still involved with the poll’s preparation and analysis, graciously agreed to be our first special guest on this blog. A longtime resident of Tiburon, we talked on the deck of his home, which overlooks a scenic lagoon off San Francisco Bay.
When I asked how it felt to be rated #1, at least by Silver’s measurement, he replied with a mix of modesty and pride that typifies how he handles his well-established professional reputation: “Well, there really wasn’t much difference between first and many of the others.” But you could also tell that he was proud of the results, though he expressed it in his usual understated way.
Born in New Brunswick, N.J., in 1921, Field became interested in survey research early in life when as a teenager, he went to work for George Gallup at his pioneering polling firm, then located over a 5 & 10 cents store in Princeton, N.J. He said his work as an interviewer for the Gallup organization helped him to learn about public opinion and some of the factors that can cause inaccurate survey results.
This was in the early era of modern-day survey research, before enough households had telephones to make surveying people that way, a viable option. He explained that back then, “Survey questionnaires were mailed to resident interviewers in fifty or so randomly selected areas. Each was expected to conduct about twenty in-person interviews.” He wryly noted the need to be watchful for signs of interviewer fatigue: “Believing they were hearing the same opinions over and over, a few would just fill out some of the questionnaires themselves.”
In 1945, after his service in the merchant marine during World War II, he founded the research firm that still bears his name, at first with a partner in Los Angeles. In 1948, he moved to the Bay Area where his San Francisco-based firm became well known its for high-quality research conducted for news organizations and other entities.
Though playful and engaging in manner, Field takes seriously the benefits that well-executed polls can have on our society. “Systematic public opinion polling is one of the greatest social inventions of the 20th century. Election polls get a lot of attention and frequently are misused, and occasionally manipulated. However, in the day-to-day function of our society, properly conducted, unbiased and objective polls provide an important link between the public and its governmental, business and institutional leaders.”
When asked what he thought were some of the most important factors that went into conducting an accurate poll, he mentioned “experience” first. He went on to explain that “you learn by making a lot of mistakes”, and that it was critical to develop “the ability to detect unintended bias”, which could influence a poll’s results from things such as the wording or ordering of questions.
Field Research still employs rigorous practices that some polling firms have abandoned due to cost or the pressure to get polls done quickly, in order to meet the demands of the 24/7 news cycle. This includes taking time- and labor-intensive steps like making repeated call-backs to those respondents who were unavailable on the first call, increasing the likelihood that the sample of people who take part in a survey, is representative of the entire population in the area or group being polled.
Field credits poll director Mark DiCamillo for maintaining the poll’s high standards and accuracy. DiCamillo, who has been with Field Research 33 years, is widely recognized for his professionalism and skill as a survey methodologist. He and his assistants are backed by a full-time staff of 30 professionals and operations people. Though some competitors outsource the actual interviewing to other firms in the U.S. and abroad, Field Research maintains its own large interviewing facility and state of the art data processing capabilities.
Asked what he thought had changed the most about public opinion over the years, Field said he felt that “Voters are more enlightened now.” He went on to explain that “with barriers such as gender and race going down,” he viewed political correctness as “a sign of progress.”
Somewhat wistfully, he added: “People are losing the ability to weigh and evaluate sources from different points of view.” He noted that although there are now vastly more resources from which to obtain information, many people tend to use only those whose point of view they agreed with, reinforcing their existing beliefs and biases.
He put it best when I asked if there was anything else he would like to say to the worldwide audience of the Internet. He paused thoughtfully for a few seconds, then said something I think should be food for thought for all of us:
“In order for us to survive, we have to adapt to a way of looking at all sides of questions, and don’t take the easy way out by just listening to one point of view or ideology. Keep an open mind, question authority. No one person, group, or political party has all the answers. The answers come from evaluating evidence that may be conflicting.”
Bodega Bay resident Richard Hertz owns Hertz Research, which conducts polling for news organizations, public agencies, businesses and other organizations.