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HERTZ: Insights on polling and public opinion from a master

Richard Hertz

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.





10 Responses to “HERTZ: Insights on polling and public opinion from a master”

  1. Daniel Lopez says:

    I am forwarding you the link to Kenny Mencher art historian http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wO0VglnxK4 or http://www.kenney-mencher.com

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  2. Paul says:

    It’s obvious that most people distrust polls, and rightfully so. Bias in polls and their questions is so blatant. Almost as blatant as the bias in main stream media. Perhaps, Mr. Hertz, you should address media bias in your blog. Then we can determine which bias is your bias.

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  3. Graeme Wellington says:

    How about a poll explaining why anyone still supports light rail in light of the experiences of all the oth cities that actually built it.

    Check out this video on YouTube:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7P1bFR5LOcg&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    Los Angeles spends 1.1 billion each year on the train. Not a single train route is faster than a bus.

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  4. Canthisbe says:

    One of my favorite polling questions is “Is the country / state / county headed in the right direction”? Both of the more extreme sides of the issue say no which results in a large number of people saying no. Even though the two groups want to change direction, they want to chage in opposite directions so the poll tells us nothing other than reasonable, compromising moderates are in the minority.

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  5. sarkyfish says:

    “Bodega Bay resident Richard Hertz owns Hertz Research, which conducts polling for news organizations…” The Press Democrat is a “news organization;” do we have a conflict of interest here?

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  6. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    A few months after 9/11 I got a poll call. The questions asked, one in specific I remember well, were really hard for me to answer. The questions were about shooting down a plane that might have a terrorist aboard. Note the “might”. The question I remember was whether I would advocate shooting down a plane if there was the strong possibility of a terrorist aboard hi jacking the plane. I took awhile to answer this, then said NO. I knew exactly who was conducting this poll and the questions were leading questions to get the answers they wanted.

    I remember clearly the hijackings of the past. No one expected, with 9/11 hijackings, that those on board were planning to use them as weapons. In the past it was money or take me to Cuba. I think if the passengers on the 9/11 planes knew that they were being used as weapons they would have tried to overpower the hijackers.

    I get polled all the time. I always know what they want by the questions they are asking.

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  7. Graeme Wellington says:

    Where is the promised fix to our political system Hertz? It’s time to invoke the mercy rule. Game over. You’ve got nothing.

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  8. sarkyfish says:

    Essentially, a pollster is a person whose heart and conscience is in the minds of others.

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  9. Just a Thought says:

    Nice trip down memory lane. The key to polling are the types of questions asked and the way they are asked.

    I was called in a CBS poll a year ago. The pollster ask me questions for about 10 minutes on the phone. Most of the questions were bias and aimed at getting me to answer a certain way.

    I am sure my answers were never used. I will never again be stupid enough to participate in a poll.

    I could put together a poll that would should you to be the greatest pollster in the United States or the biggest fool that ever made a phone call.

    Public political polls should never be trusted, especially those that are published.

    Too much is made of polls to prove a point or than something is really happening when nothing is happening. Most people are so busy with their jobs, families and lives that they don’t keep up on current news. In addition, most people could not tell you the location of the Yellow Sea for example.

    Polls are a waste of time except for internal polls commissioned by political candidates who need a finger in the air.

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  10. Thorn says:

    This reads like a junior high report on your summer break. Mr. Hertz, I am sure you had a nice time chatting with Mr. Field, but what about your readers? This post is devoid of any meaningful points. Where are the insights on polling that the title hints at? Has any polling been done on the effects of polling?

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