The Pioneer Pollster Whose Credibility You Could Count On

By Richard Morin
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company