09/04/2006 11:21 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Warren Mitofsky: An Appreciation

Sixteen years ago, I called Warren Mitofsky at his office in New York with a question. What made the conversation remarkable was neither the reason for my query nor the substance of his answer. What was remarkable was that he took the call at all.

At the ripe old age of 27, I had barely four years of experience in the polling business. I knew just enough about methodology to be dangerous, yet in retrospect I knew not nearly enough of what I didn't know. I had a question about the methods Mitofsky had implemented at CBS, and I could not find the answer on my own. So my employer at the time suggested I give him a call.

By then I knew the Mitofsky legend well. Along with colleague Joe Waksberg, he invented a more efficient method to draw random digit dial (RDD) telephone samples that became an industry standard. He conducted the first exit polls for CBS News and created the election projection system now used by all of the U.S. television networks to project winners. As director of the CBS election and survey unit from 1967 to 1990, he helped create the CBS/New York Times polling partnership that became a model for other news outlets. When I placed my call in 1990, he was in the midst of creating the multi-network consortium that he would direct for another three years. Mitofsky would continue to play a major role in directing network exit polling until his untimely death last Friday.

I called with some trepidation sixteen years ago, and to my surprise he came on the line almost immediately. My odd question betrayed my own ignorance and, as I recall, puzzled him. He could have easily brushed me off, admonished me for wasting his time or lectured me about my need for more education in survey fundamentals. Yet he did none of those things. Calmly and patiently, he explained some of the "probability methods" pollsters use to select respondents within a sampled household and made some suggestions about where I might go to learn more. I remember feeling embarrassed yet also amazed that this polling legend had taken a few minutes of his valuable time to encourage my own naive curiosity about how to conduct good research.

Warren was like that. He is best known for his ardent devotion to the very highest standards in survey research. Get on the wrong side of that passion and you would likely end up, as his long-time CBS colleague Murray Edelman put it Saturday, with "the scars to prove it." He could also be famously thin skinned about criticism he considered ill informed. Yet beneath the curmudgeonly public persona beat the heart of a scholar and teacher, always open to learning from his colleagues, always ready to share his own wisdom with those genuinely willing to learn.

Less known among Mitofsky's many accomplishments was his commitment to making raw data available to scholars. His life's work -- The CBS/New York Times surveys and most of his exit polls -- have long been archived at both the Roper Center and the University of Michigan's Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR). He had been serving most recently the chairman of the Roper Center board of directors.

One could see both the passion and the commitment to learning in his prolific contributions to the member's only listserv of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR). In a sense, he became something of a proto-blogger over the last ten years, posting a steady stream of comments or responding to questions at all hours of the day or night. To be sure, he could blast with both barrels at arguments he considered wrongheaded. Yet despite his prominence he always seemed willing to engage any AAPOR colleague, regardless of their stature, as an equal worthy of respect.

There were also frequent flashes of his particular brand of wry humor. In 2002, he posted an Associated Press account to his fellow pollsters on the efforts of rapper P. Diddy to get into the market research business (with the lead "the 'P' in P. Diddy stands for 'public opinion'"). His subject line: "Our days are numbered."

The humor was often self-deprecatory. Just last year an AAPOR member asked about how to best respond to the backhanded compliment, "you should have a PhD." Mitofsky, who had been a doctoral candidate in mass communications but never completed his degree responded, "I just tell people I'm still working on it. I'm a slow reader."

And finally there was his response to a discussion about whether the term "pollster" contributes to the negative opinion of survey researchers. Those who knew Mitofsky will probably hear that lilt in his voice and see the twinkle in his eye that would have accompanied the final sentence of the following paragraph:

If you wonder why the term pollster is not viewed favorably, here is how some academics view polls: At an [American Political Science Association] convention meeting a professor started reporting on all the surveys done about the presidential debates during the 1976 campaign. When he finished I pointed out that he had omitted the extensive research that CBS and NY Times did on the debates. He responded by stating, "I just reported the surveys. Yours will be reported when we get to the polls." Ever since then I have understood that a survey is done by the academics or the government. Polls are what the media does. However, a poll can become a survey if archived at a reputable academic institution.

Warren Mitofsky showed us all how a "poll" can attain the highest standards of scientific survey research. He made "pollster" a label I will always wear as a badge of honor.

We will miss him.