Mervin Field wasn’t always right about who was winning California elections, but over seven decades, his Field Poll established an enviable track record of accurately charting the ups and downs of California politics.
Field’s office confirmed that he had died early Monday in a Marin County assisted-living facility after a long bout with illness. He was 94.
Field once said he was “infected” with polling when, as a New Jersey high school student in 1937, he was introduced to polling pioneer George Gallup.
“The Gallup Poll was then in a loft over the five-and-ten,” Field recalled in a 1996 Sacramento Bee interview. “It was just a big loft and here were these questionnaires and these card-counting sorters, and I was just fascinated by the whole method. I can remember quite vividly. … The whole idea that you can sample a microscopically small portion of the universe, and if you do it systematically, you can project the whole universe!”
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Less than a decade later, after completing college, working for Gallup and serving in the Merchant Marine during World War II, Field founded Field Research Corp., which did opinion and market research for clients in California, but also included what was originally called the California Poll.
It later was renamed the Field Poll and produced by a nonprofit Field Institute, but its goal remained the same – provide a means by which California news outlets could regularly inform their audiences about political and public policy trends, based on responses from a cross-section of California’s voters.
“I remember trying to sell the poll to a Santa Barbara (newspaper) guy in 1948, and all I needed from him was something like $5 a week,” Field recalled in that 1996 interview. “He says, ‘Five dollars a week? Do you realize that I can get (columnist) Walter Lippmann four days a week for $5?’”
The 1948 presidential election, when pollsters uniformly – and wrongly – concluded that Harry Truman would lose to Thomas Dewey, was a wake-up call for all in the still-young profession, including Field. Polls are snapshots in time, not ironclad predictions of outcomes.
Field had his own trial in 1982 when, based on “exit polling” of voters throughout the state, he went on television moments after polling places had closed to declare that Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley would win the governorship and Gov. Jerry Brown was likely to win a U.S. Senate seat. His declaration sparked a raucous outpouring of cheers and music at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, the election night headquarters for both candidates.
Bradley did lead on election day, but exit polling did not take into account a surge of what were then called “absentee ballots,” taking advantage of a new law making their use easier. When the mailed-in ballots were counted, George Deukmejian had eked out a narrow win. Brown lost by a much wider margin to Pete Wilson.
That glitch aside, the Field Poll – which since 1995 has been directed by longtime Field aide Mark DiCamillo and has issued more than 2,500 reports – has consistently beat out rivals in terms of accuracy about California’s constantly shifting political trends. In 2010 and again in 2014, Nate Silver’s political website, fivethirtyeight.com, listed the Field Poll as among the top three U.S. polling organizations in pre-election accuracy.
Meanwhile, polling, both public and private, has become an important – perhaps the most important – factor in how campaigns for and against politicians and ballot measures are designed.
The poll was closely watched by campaign donors and grew so influential that candidates would try to time their television and radio advertising to match periods the poll was in the field, said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which handicaps legislative races.
“His influence on campaign consultants, you know, was quite profound,” Hoffenblum said.
Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant, credited Field not only for his candidate polls but also for polls on public policy issues.
“The obvious reality is that Merv was an incredible pioneer,” he said. “Basically, the public polling world was in its infancy when he got involved, and you know, he became the brand and had an enormous influence on California politics.”
Field’s first marriage ended in divorce and his second, to Marilyn Hammer in 1957, lasted until her death in 2005. His survivors include two daughters, a son and a grandson. In private life, Field was an avid tennis and bridge player, an accomplished chess player and a devotee of standup comedy and jazz.