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Warren Mitofsky: An Appreciation

Topics: CBS , CBS/New York Times , Exit Polls , Murray Edelman , Pollsters

Sixteen years ago, I called Warren Mitofsky at his office in New York with a question. What made the conversation remarkable was neither the reason for my query nor the substance of his answer. What was remarkable was that he took the call at all.

At the ripe old age of 27, I had barely four years of experience in the polling business. I knew just enough about methodology to be dangerous, yet in retrospect I knew not nearly enough of what I didn't know. I had a question about the methods Mitofsky had implemented at CBS, and I could not find the answer on my own. So my employer at the time suggested I give him a call.

By then I knew the Mitofsky legend well. Along with colleague Joe Waksberg, he invented a more efficient method to draw random digit dial (RDD) telephone samples that became an industry standard. He conducted the first exit polls for CBS News and created the election projection system now used by all of the U.S. television networks to project winners. As director of the CBS election and survey unit from 1967 to 1990, he helped create the CBS/New York Times polling partnership that became a model for other news outlets. When I placed my call in 1990, he was in the midst of creating the multi-network consortium that he would direct for another three years. Mitofsky would continue to play a major role in directing network exit polling until his untimely death last Friday.

I called with some trepidation sixteen years ago, and to my surprise he came on the line almost immediately. My odd question betrayed my own ignorance and, as I recall, puzzled him. He could have easily brushed me off, admonished me for wasting his time or lectured me about my need for more education in survey fundamentals. Yet he did none of those things. Calmly and patiently, he explained some of the "probability methods" pollsters use to select respondents within a sampled household and made some suggestions about where I might go to learn more. I remember feeling embarrassed yet also amazed that this polling legend had taken a few minutes of his valuable time to encourage my own naive curiosity about how to conduct good research.

Warren was like that. He is best known for his ardent devotion to the very highest standards in survey research. Get on the wrong side of that passion and you would likely end up, as his long-time CBS colleague Murray Edelman put it Saturday, with "the scars to prove it." He could also be famously thin skinned about criticism he considered ill informed. Yet beneath the curmudgeonly public persona beat the heart of a scholar and teacher, always open to learning from his colleagues, always ready to share his own wisdom with those genuinely willing to learn.

Less known among Mitofsky's many accomplishments was his commitment to making raw data available to scholars. His life's work -- The CBS/New York Times surveys and most of his exit polls -- have long been archived at both the Roper Center and the University of Michigan's Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR). He had been serving most recently the chairman of the Roper Center board of directors.

One could see both the passion and the commitment to learning in his prolific contributions to the member's only listserv of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR). In a sense, he became something of a proto-blogger over the last ten years, posting a steady stream of comments or responding to questions at all hours of the day or night. To be sure, he could blast with both barrels at arguments he considered wrongheaded. Yet despite his prominence he always seemed willing to engage any AAPOR colleague, regardless of their stature, as an equal worthy of respect.

There were also frequent flashes of his particular brand of wry humor. In 2002, he posted an Associated Press account to his fellow pollsters on the efforts of rapper P. Diddy to get into the market research business (with the lead "the 'P' in P. Diddy stands for 'public opinion'"). His subject line: "Our days are numbered."

The humor was often self-deprecatory. Just last year an AAPOR member asked about how to best respond to the backhanded compliment, "you should have a PhD." Mitofsky, who had been a doctoral candidate in mass communications but never completed his degree responded, "I just tell people I'm still working on it. I'm a slow reader."

And finally there was his response to a discussion about whether the term "pollster" contributes to the negative opinion of survey researchers. Those who knew Mitofsky will probably hear that lilt in his voice and see the twinkle in his eye that would have accompanied the final sentence of the following paragraph:

If you wonder why the term pollster is not viewed favorably, here is how some academics view polls: At an [American Political Science Association] convention meeting a professor started reporting on all the surveys done about the presidential debates during the 1976 campaign. When he finished I pointed out that he had omitted the extensive research that CBS and NY Times did on the debates. He responded by stating, "I just reported the surveys. Yours will be reported when we get to the polls." Ever since then I have understood that a survey is done by the academics or the government. Polls are what the media does. However, a poll can become a survey if archived at a reputable academic institution.

Warren Mitofsky showed us all how a "poll" can attain the highest standards of scientific survey research. He made "pollster" a label I will always wear as a badge of honor.

We will miss him.

 

Comments
Azerbaijan Shame:

While I agree with much that is written in the obit, and have no desire whatsoever to lessen Warren's work, it would be dishonest not to point out that his legacy, in my opinion, was lessened by his shameful conduct during the Azerbaijani parliamentary elections of 2005. There, despite his disingenuous, post-facto mea culpa, Warren essentially sold his name to an authoritarian dictatorial regime in order to lend an air of legitimacy and authenticity to elections that international observers (not to mention the domestic political opposition, much of which still sits in prison for its efforts) deemed a sham at best.

For better or for worse, this also should serve as a lesson to us as pollsters: to beware of foreign ventures where we have little or no knowledge of the local political 'lay of the land,' and where large paychecks often can conceal more nefarious currents underneath...

____________________

DemFromCT :

Thank you for this. There's so much more to this man than exit poll controversies.

____________________

Elizabeth Liddle:

I never met him, but worked with him on the exit poll data over the last year. Your obituary certainly fits the man I got to know.

It still amazes me to realise that the man who dominated the exit poll field for decades took a criticism by a novice on a blog (me) seriously enough not only to re-analyse his own data, but to hire me to do more. It is so rare to encounter someone driven so much more strongly by a passion to know than by conventional assessments of whose opinion might be worth attending to. And to find it in someone of Mitofsky's professional standing is even rarer.

I will miss him. Thanks for posting this.

____________________

Rob Farbman:

Mark - Thanks for your post. I've been having trouble putting my thoughts on Warren to words these past few days. You did it well. I and many other will indeed miss him dearly.

____________________

Patrick Murray:

I only just got to know Warren over the last year or two and was incredibly impressed with his single-minded commitment to the field's integrity. His mistrust of Internet polling was one of his prime concerns later in life and it was fun to rile him a bit about it. However, his mistrust was not of the new methodology per se, but the ability of less scrupulous pollsters to misrepresent their data when using it.

As to Azberaijan, before making anonymous accusations, it behooves "us as pollsters" to have all the facts. Based on my understanding of the situation, Warren's "fault" was a bit of naivete in assuming that the Azerbaijani government would respect his stature in the field and allow his independence in gathering data and reporting results.

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Mitofsky never explained how he derived the weightings in the final National Exit Poll (NEP). And he implicitly assumed that the vote count was correct - that there was NO fraud. So his methodology of matching the exit polls to the final vote is suspect.

But what if the final vote count was corrupt? Did Mitofsky ever consider that possibility that his 12:22 exit poll timeline was correct? Especially knowing the anomalies in the OHIO, NM and FL votes: massive new voter turnout, long lines, disenfranchisement, precinct vote counts greater than registation stats, etc...

Consider these facts:

1) Kerry won the NEP 12:22am timeline (13047 respondents) by 51-48%.

2) Bush won the Final (13660 respondents) by 51-48%.

3) In the Final, weights AND vote shares were adjusted to MATCH the vote count.

4) The Final 43% Bush/37% Gore weights (in the "How Voted 2000" demographic) were MATHEMATICALLY IMPOSSIBLE.

5) Using PLAUSIBLE weights in the Final, Kerry is the 51-48% winner - with NO change to the vote shares.

6) Kerry MUST HAVE DONE EVEN BETTER than 51-48%, since his 12:22AM vote shares were SUBSTANTIALLY REDUCED in the Final.

To believe the Final NEP, you must also believe:

1) That 52.57mm (43% of 122.3mm), or 108% of the 48.7mm Bush 2000 voters still living, turned out in 2004 - FOUR MILLION more Bush 2000 voters than
were ALIVE. FOUR MILLION PHANTOM BUSH 2000 VOTERS.

IF we assume a PLAUSIBLE 95% Bush 2000 voter turnout (46.25mm, or 37.83% of 122.3mm), THEN the Final NEP OVERSTATED Bush voter turnout by 6.3 MILLION.

2) On the other hand, the NEP apparently UNDERSTATED Gore 2000 voter turnout. The 37% weighting means that 45.24mm voted in 2004, or JUST 92% of the 49.2mm still living.

If we assume a PLAUSIBLE 95% Gore 2000 voter turnout (46.75mm or 38.24% of 122.3mm), THEN the Final NEP UNDERSTATED Gore voter turnout by 1.5 MILLION.

___________________________________________________________________


FINAL NATIONAL EXIT POLL
2:05PM, 13660 RESPONDENTS

HOW VOTED IN 2000
(Impossible 43%/37% weights)

BUSH WINS: 62.5-59.3mm (51.1%-48.5%)

Voted..2004............Vote Share..........Votes (mm)
2000 Votes Weight Kerry Bush Other Kerry Bush Other
No 20.79 17% 54% 45% 1% 11.22 9.35 0.21
Gore 45.24 37% 90% 10% 0% 40.72 4.52 0.00
Bush 52.57 43% 9% 91% 0% 4.73 47.84 0.00
Nader 3.67 3% 71% 21% 8% 2.60 0.77 0.29

Total 122.27 100% 48.48% 51.11% 0.41% 59.28 62.49 0.50

_________________________________________________________________


FINAL NATIONAL EXIT POLL
2:05PM, 13660 RESPONDENTS

HOW VOTED IN 2000
(Adjusted for plausible weights)

MAXIMUM WEIGHTS (100% turnout): 40.25% Gore/39.82% Bush
PLAUSIBLE WEIGHTS (95% turnout): 38.24% Gore/37.83% Bush
NO CHANGE in vote shares.

KERRY WINS: 62.6-59.2mm (51.2%-48.4%)

Voted..2004............Vote Share...........Votes (mm)
2000 Votes Weight Kerry Bush Other Kerry Bush Other
No 26.22 21.44% 54% 45% 1% 14.16 11.80 0.26
Gore 46.75 38.24% 90% 10% 0% 42.08 4.68 0.00
Bush 46.25 37.83% 9% 91% 0% 4.16 42.09 0.00
Nader 3.04 2.49% 71% 21% 8% 2.16 0.64 0.24

Total 122.27 100% 51.17% 48.42% 0.41% 62.56 59.20 0.51

_________________________________________________________________

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Rick Brady:

TIA...sigh... Glad to say that in all my e-mail discussions with Warren regarding 2004 and his critics, you're acronym never came up. As hard as that is to believe, it is all truth!

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Rick,

I'm not surprised.
Why would you bring it up?

I'm not Steve Freeman or Ron Baiman or RFK.
They're well-known. Who the hell knows or cares about me?

I can't recall anyone associated with Mitofsky
hijacking my threads on DU or PI.

Can you?

____________________



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