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The Pioneer Pollster Whose Credibility You Could Count On

Warren Mitofsky, an innovator in public opinion research, introduced the election exit poll in 1967. He was the longtime head of polling at CBS News.
Warren Mitofsky, an innovator in public opinion research, introduced the election exit poll in 1967. He was the longtime head of polling at CBS News. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

The two argued frequently over poll results. But Mitofsky said his most prized possession from his years at CBS is a photo of Rather on the air. "It's a little plaque hanging on my wall at home," he said. "It was done by the graphics department to commemorate Dan's saying, 'When it comes to these kind of things, I believe in God, country and Warren Mitofsky.' And he said this on the air."

At the time of his death, Mitofsky found himself in the peculiar position of arguing for the inaccuracy of his own 2004 exit poll. That survey found John Kerry leading early on Election Day, only to lose his advantage when the actual ballots were counted. Early leaked results hinting at a Kerry win over the incumbent sent newsrooms into a frenzy, and left some senior editors angry when their hurriedly made plans blew up and President Bush won. Since then, conspiracy theorists have claimed that the 2004 Election Day survey was correct and that it was the vote count that was skewed -- a notion Mitofsky dismissed with a laugh.

"I just don't believe in conspiracies. I'm much more a believer in something practical, like incompetence," he said.

Mitofsky's own post-election analysis found no evidence of fraud. The pro-Kerry skew was caused by Republicans' refusing to participate at a greater rate than Democrats, which he blamed on poorly trained interviewers.

In a way, Mitofsky fell victim in later life to his own success and formidable reputation. "People are expecting perfection out of the polls and out of me," he said. "They're thinking they're really going to make a decision on the outcome of close races based on exit polls. . . . Exit polls are not that good. They're approximate."

Although he was often hailed as an innovator, Mitofsky's greatest gifts may have been as a borrower and synthesizer of the ideas of others. He saw possibilities and made connections that less eclectic minds didn't.

In 1967, CBS was preparing its coverage of the Kentucky governor's race. Mitofsky had hired a market researcher, George Fine, to help him collect voting data on Election Day. During a conversation, Fine happened to mention some work he was doing for the movie industry. "The movie people wanted to test a film before they released it for distribution," Mitofsky recalled, "so they would show it in test theaters, show it to a test audience. And George decided to interview the people as they left the theaters. . . . I can't swear whether he suggested it or we put two and two together. And we said, 'Why don't we interview [Kentucky residents] leaving the polling places?' "

It was the first exit poll. The technique proved so successful in 1967 that they did it again in 1968, and in every election thereafter. (Mitofsky disliked the term exit poll -- "it's imprecise" -- and called them Election Day surveys until network executives ordered him to stop in 1980.)

Mitofsky claims to have correctly called approximately 2,500 elections and gotten only six wrong. But he said his most satisfying moment in polling was an election night "when I kept my mouth shut. It was that night that ABC and NBC called Udall the winner over Carter in the Wisconsin primary in 1976," Mitofsky said. "Around midnight it was starting to look like Carter but not enough to make the call. And we did make the call eventually, at 2 or 3 a.m."

It was typical Warren, the prideful perfectionist who let few errors or slights go unnoticed.

"Your credibility is the most important attribute that you have in doing public work," he told me last year, after being attacked for the 2004 presidential exit poll. " I work for networks, I work for the AP and I'm concerned about my clients. But I'm more concerned about my own credibility and I don't care to tarnish it to help them."

Later in that interview, Mitofsky reflected on his life and his sometimes stormy relationship with the television networks.

"I'm of an age, I don't really give a [expletive]," Mitofsky said. "What are they going to do, they get mad and say they don't want to work with me? You know, they can say that and I'll say goodbye. I don't care. I really don't care."

That wasn't true. He cared, perhaps too much, until the day he died.

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