Mark DiCamillo on how presidential polls got it wrong
The Field Poll, which for more than a half-century has been the gold standard for public opinion research, is ceasing operations Friday, leaving behind a fabled track record of accurately reflecting the highs and lows of California’s biggest players and issues.
Field’s closure, announced by poll director Mark DiCamillo, comes less than two years after the death of Mervin Field, who founded the surveying firm after working for Gallup and serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II. Field operated continuously since 1947 as an independent, nonpartisan opinion poll service, and has issued tens of thousands of reports.
In an interview Thursday, DiCamillo, who spent 38 years at Field, said the poll’s chief underwriter, the France-based multinational advertising and public relations company Havas, recently informed him that the polling company would no longer be part of its future. Field Research Corp., however, will continue operating until early next year.
“It’s the end of an era,” said DiCamillo, adding that Friday would be his last day working at Field’s offices. “I am very fortunate to have met Merv 38 years ago, and it changed my life. Who would have known that I would become an expert on California politics as a profession? It’s just been a great ride.”
Over the decades, Field’s media subscribers used the poll, based on a cross-section of statewide voters, to inform Californians about everything from public policy trends to the latest election for governor, U.S. Senate, or lesser offices.
The firm’s periodic polls on ballot measures were especially helpful for assessing changes in voter attitudes over the course of campaigns. But as media companies faced shrinking advertising revenue, Field’s financial support diminished.
The Sacramento Bee had remained as one of its largest subscribers.
Field’s demise, coupled with the death last year of California Target Book editor Allan Hoffenblum, ends a chapter for state political watchers. It comes amid a break in the generational logjam that’s ushering in the next wave of statewide politicians, beginning with U.S. Sen.-elect Kamala Harris and the nominee to replace her as state attorney general, Xavier Becerra, and the survey’s ubiquity still makes it difficult to imagine the upcoming 2018 governor’s race without the Field Poll.
“It’s not just unfortunate, it’s tragic,” said Dan Schnur, who as director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC oversees the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times statewide poll.
“There are certainly other public opinion polls in California, but none of them with the history and the richness of content that Mervin and Mark provided over so many years.”
But Schnur said he’s observed in recent years that people increasingly refuse to believe news that doesn’t reinforce their partisan leanings.
“If you get your information from Fox News or Comedy Central, a legitimate public opinion poll like Field is an unwelcome intrusion into your version of reality,” he said.
Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, called the Field Poll’s closure “a big loss,” after chatting briefly with DiCamillo. Baldassare said rising costs have created a difficult environment for polling organizations. “Its an important business. Just like newspapers,” he said.
Baldassare considered Mervin Field a mentor and DiCamillo a partner in the industry who continued “with great integrity, independence and quality.” Field, said Baldassare, “left an incredible legacy for polling.”
“It was nice to have them as thought partners,” he said. “They were a good role model for all of us.”
While pollsters across the country, many of whom predicted a Hillary Clinton victory, are grappling with questions about the accuracy of the forecasts, Field has long been recognized nationally for its reliability and precision.
In one of his interviews with The Bee, Merv Field said it was the 1948 presidential election, when pollsters wrongly concluded that Republican Thomas Dewey would beat Democrat Harry Truman, that provided a wake-up call to his emerging industry.
Along the way, Field’s sampling procedures changed, from in-person interviews done door-to-door to telephone surveys after 1979.
Since the 1990s, polls were conducted in English and Spanish, and over the last decade Field began asking its questions in multiple Asian languages, including Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Tagalog. For the most recent election, Field conducted its poll online with respondents selected by a sampling method designed to resemble the demographic and regional profile of voters. Field’s archives will continue to reside at UC Data, UC Berkeley’s collection of digitized social science data and statistics.
Taking stock of the constant changes to the industry and media landscape, Merv Field, who died last year at the age of 94, told The Bee in 1996 that he still considered the introduction of the survey method perhaps the greatest social invention of the last century.
Field added: “But as one who has gotten so much joy and occupational satisfaction out of doing this, it would be a shame if it was just a one- or two-generation phenomenon.”