The Pioneer Pollster Whose Credibility You Could Count On
Wednesday, September 6, 2006
Warren Mitofsky was too honest to work in television network news. Or perhaps he was just too candid.
Mitofsky, a pioneering media pollster, died of an aortic aneurysm Friday at 71. For 23 years, he headed the polling department at CBS News, where he was viewed as a guru, a statistical maven, an innovator -- but also as a loose cannon who didn't know when to stop telling the truth to his bosses or to reporters.
While at CBS, he is credited with inventing the Election Day exit poll -- although he hated the name and was frequently dismayed by the way the networks came to use his creation. Since 2003, he had partnered with Joe Lenski to conduct exit polls for all the major television networks and the Associated Press -- including the flawed 2004 presidential exit poll that fueled claims that the election had been stolen.
Mitofsky cared deeply, passionately and sometimes explosively about his profession and his place in it. He didn't tolerate fools, poseurs or corporate tools, and he delighted in telling them so. Even his friends agree that he began too many sentences with the words, "Here's why you're wrong . . ." As he said it, he inevitably smiled that off-kilter, crocodile smile that he flashed whether he was pleased or angry.
It was that smile I remember most. We met at a conference 19 years ago, soon after I was hired to be director of polling for The Washington Post. I introduced myself. "Congratulations," he said, smiling broadly. "I've never heard of you."
In the somewhat sheltered and sterile world of polling, Mitofsky loomed as an Indiana Jones figure -- if Indiana Jones had been Jewish, the son of a caterer and born in Jersey City. He introduced exit polling to the world, including to countries new to democracy and free elections. His reputation for accuracy and independence -- a reputation he fiercely guarded -- made his exit polls the gold standard with which election results were compared and confirmed.
"Warren Mitofsky knows all things," said Roy Campos, who worked with Mitofsky on exit polls in Mexico. "And every time he does another one, he learns something more."
Mitofsky's feuds were famous. For years he battled with Jeff Alderman, the late director of polling at ABC, over polling methodology and the relative merits of each other's work. More recently, Mitofsky had an ongoing quarrel with pollster John Zogby, describing him as a "self-promoter" and accusing him of using voodoo methodology. (Zogby dismissed him publicly as a "cranky old man.")
I once asked him why he fought so much. "It's because I care so much," he allowed, his eyes twinkling. "It's a curse."
Despite his curmudgeonly nature, Mitofsky was a joiner and a leader. He was a past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, the professional pollsters organization. He was a fixture at AAPOR's "Applied Probability" workshop -- a late-night poker game held at the conference each year. He also led the National Council on Public Polls, a watchdog group that monitors and sometimes criticizes pollsters for bad practices. He was a fellow of the American Statistical Association, a rare honor for a man who held a somewhat relaxed attitude toward formal education and who never finished his PhD at the University of Minnesota.
It is ironic that Mitofsky died on the eve of Labor Day weekend. Few employees have demonstrated more stubborn independence from their bosses than Mitofsky. "A network executive in fear mode is a frightening thing to behold -- gutless and afraid and ready to leave you hanging out to dry to save their own necks," he once said. "That's why I want to make all the decisions."
Mitofsky loved to gossip, which endeared him to reporters and infuriated his bosses. He also had a journalist's sense of what was news. He got along well with Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite. Rather disliked polls, telling Mitofsky that he preferring looking people in the eye when asking their views rather than digesting statistical summaries of interviews with 1,500 randomly selected Americans.