Last month, at a California forum on why pollsters had failed to predict Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, someone mentioned the “Bradley Effect.”
If you don’t know what that is, you can be forgiven. It’s the belief that 34 years ago, voters might have confounded the polls in the governor’s race by, among other things, failing to be candid about their reluctance to vote for the black candidate, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
The Field Poll’s director, Mark DiCamillo, knew all about it, though. California history has been a kind of subspecialty at the poll founded by Mervin Field in 1947 in San Francisco. Seventy years of repeatedly taking a state’s pulse will do that.
Alas, the Field Poll was shut down last week by its corporate owners. With it goes an invaluable part of California’s institutional memory.
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The Field Poll was the closest thing in California to an institutional memory of public opinion.
To Havas Worldwide, the French advertising and communications conglomerate that acquired it from another French company – which acquired it from a British company, which in turn acquired it from its founder in the 1990s – the Field Poll was just a miscellaneous, faraway, marginally profitable knickknack. The decision to cut it was no more or less complicated than it would have been for any line item that failed to fit the corporate strategy.
But to Californians, the poll was an integral part of the political ecosystem. No assessment of a statewide candidate or initiative was complete without it. Field himself was a political celebrity here until his death 18 months ago at age 94 at an assisted-living facility in Marin County. DiCamillo, as well, has been a household name in political circles, vital to Californians seeking to understand their state and themselves.
It is unclear who will pick up the Field Poll’s mantle. Polls are labor-intensive and expensive, and the news organizations that support them are watching their own bottom lines these days. Certainly there are respected successors – the Public Policy Institute of California and the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll both do very good work statewide.
But it seems almost unthinkable that the 2018 governor’s race will take place without the Field Poll’s dispatches. And to see the poll go away at this particular moment, when fake news and disinformation are rampant, is dispiriting. Never have facts and historical truth been as necessary as they are now in American and Californian discourse, or as alarmingly besieged.