His name­sake poll shaped state’s pol­i­tics

MERVIN D. FIELD, 1921-2015

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Mark Z. Barabak and Elaine Woo

In the late 1930s, Mervin D. Field was a high school stu­dent in Prince­ton, N.J., strug­gling to sur­vive the De­pres­sion by park­ing cars, bag­ging gro­ceries and work­ing other odd jobs.

One of those jobs changed his life, and ul­ti­mately, his adopted home state of Cal­i­for­nia.

While still a teen, Field found part-time work with Ge­orge Gallup, a poll­ster who had just made a na­tional name for him­self by pre­dict­ing Franklin D. Roo­sevelt’s victory in the 1936 pres­i­den­tial race. Field was fas­ci­nated by the me­chan­ics of di­vin­ing public opin­ion and de­cided then that it was his call­ing.

Field, whose Field Poll be­came the stan­dard for public opin­ion re­search in Cal­i­for­nia, died Mon­day at an as­sisted-living fa­cil­ity in Mill Val­ley, Calif. He was 94.

His death was con­firmed by Mark DiCamillo, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of Field Re­search and direc­tor of the Field Poll.

“Mervin Field de­fined public opin­ion re­search in the state of Cal­i­for­nia, the same way Ge­orge Gallup did for the United States and the

world,” said Dan Sch­nur, a vet­eran po­lit­i­cal strate­gist and direc­tor of the Jesse M. Unruh In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics at USC.

“For all prac­ti­cal pur­poses,” Sch­nur said, “it didn’t re­ally ex­ist be­fore him.”

Field’s death brought trib­utes from po­lit­i­cal lead­ers across the state, in­clud­ing U.S. Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein, who rec­og­nized Field as “the dean of Cal­i­for­nia poll­sters.”

Field, she said, “helped shape nearly 70 years of state pol­i­tics. When one of his Field Polls was re­leased, peo­ple paid at­ten­tion, and that holds true to­day.”

Launched in 1947 as the Cal­i­for­nia Poll, Field’s sur­vey main­tained con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence.

The re­sults reg­u­larly made head­lines and could in­stantly re­cast a cam­paign or al­ter a pol­icy de­bate in Sacra­mento.

He tracked is­sues such as the death penalty, same-sex mar­riage and de­crim­i­nal­iz­ing mar­i­juana for decades, iden­ti­fy­ing trends that helped shape can­di­dates’ sound bites, change leg­is­la­tors’ votes and ex­plain Cal­i­for­ni­ans’ pas­sions and at­ti­tudes for the rest of the coun­try.

“Field helped make Cal­i­for­nia more un­der­stand­able,” said Larry Ger­ston, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of po­lit­i­cal science at San Jose State Uni­ver­sity, who called Field a pi­o­neer of mod­ern polling.

His sur­veys also changed the per­cep­tions of many races, in­clud­ing the con­tro­ver­sial battle over 1988’s in­sur­ance re­form ini­tia­tive, Propo­si­tion 103, for which other polls had pre­dicted de­feat, and the 1998 con­test be­tween Sen. Bar­bara Boxer and her chal­lenger, Matt Fong, who had been thought to have a strong lead. In both cases, Field’s polls ac­cu­rately pre­dicted the out­comes.

In pol­i­tics, “Field was among the most pow­er­ful peo­ple in the state,” said long­time po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant Rich Robin­son. “When the Field Poll came out, it was con­sid­ered ob­jec­tive. There was no way you could spin it. His sur­veys be­came the ob­jec­tive me­ter by which po­lit­i­cal races were judged.”

A strap­ping man with over­sized glasses, a boom­ing laugh, bald­ing scalp and in­sa­tiable love of pol­i­tics, Field com­bined the in­tel­lec­tual rigor of an aca­demi­cian with the Borscht Belt hu­mor of a frus­trated stand-up comic. For years, he com­bined his skills by em­cee­ing an an­nual night­club gath­er­ing of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia politi­cians and po­lit­i­cal in­sid­ers, mix­ing top­i­cal com­men­tary and anal­y­sis with a string of groan-in­duc­ing one-lin­ers.

He could also laugh at him­self. One year, af­ter be­ing mocked by a cam­paign strate­gist as a would-be “swami,” Field showed up at the gala wear­ing a white tur­ban and a broad smile.

For all his suc­cess, Field wasn’t al­ways right, as crit­ics — most of­ten can­di­dates trail­ing in his sur­veys — were apt to point out. His most fa­mous and em­bar­rass­ing flub came in Novem­ber 1982, when Field went on tele­vi­sion on elec­tion night and de­clared that Demo­crat Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los An­ge­les, would make his­tory by be­com­ing Cal­i­for­nia’s first black gover­nor. Field had failed to ac­count, how­ever, for ab­sen­tee vot­ers, which strate­gists for Repub­li­can Ge­orge Deuk­me­jian had tar­geted in a then-novel strat­egy.

When the re­sults were in, Deuk­me­jian squeaked past Bradley by fewer than 100,000 votes out of nearly 8 mil­lion cast.

Mervin Field was born March 11, 1921, in New Brunswick, N.J. His par­ents were Jewish im­mi­grants from Rus­sia. (The D. was an af­fec­ta­tion Field added as young adult to give his name, he be­lieved, a more WASPish sound.)

His par­ents strug­gled to raise their five chil­dren, so even­tu­ally Field, their youngest, and an older sis­ter moved in with an aunt and un­cle. When the cou­ple moved to New York City dur­ing Field’s sopho­more year in high school, he stayed be­hind, rent­ing a $5-a-week room out­side Prince­ton.

One day he tagged along with a friend on an er­rand and met Gallup, whose opin­ion re­search of­fice was in Prince­ton. Field was taken with the rudi­men­tary tools of polling: ques­tion­naires, punch cards, slide rules, card-count­ing sorters. In­spired, he con­ducted the first of count­less sur­veys while still in high school, a sampling of pref­er­ences in the race for se­nior class pres­i­dent.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, Field brief ly at­tended Rut­gers Uni­ver­sity and then the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­souri, where he stud­ied jour­nal­ism un­til his money ran out. He re­turned to New Jer­sey and worked for Gallup un­til the start of World War II, when he joined the Mer­chant Marine and served on a trans­port ship in the South Pa­cific and Euro­pean the­aters.

Like many ser­vice mem­bers, Field was en­chanted as he passed through balmy Cal­i­for­nia and moved to Los An­ge­les af­ter leav­ing the Mer­chant Marine in Novem­ber 1945.

The next month, he launched his one-man re­search firm, de­voted to serv­ing cor­po­rate clients. Soon af­ter he started the Cal­i­for­nia Poll, mod­eled on a po­lit­i­cal sur­vey done by a friend in Texas. The poll was never a big mon­ey­maker: The point was to boost the com­mer­cial por­tion of Field’s busi­ness by show­cas­ing his re­search abil­ity.

In 1948, Field moved to the Bay Area and soon be­came a fix­ture in San Fran­cisco’s Fi­nan­cial Dis­trict, lunch­ing most week­days at one of two white-table­cloth restau­rants, of­ten with a politi­cian, jour­nal­ist or other cam­paign junkie who shared his hunger for the lat­est po­lit­i­cal gos­sip. For decades, Field or­dered the same dish — grilled pe­trale sole — con­sum­ing, by his ac­count, more than 4,000 serv­ings.

At its height, Field Re­search em­ployed more than 40 staffers and as many as 100 pro­fes­sional in­ter­view­ers, and its clients in­cluded many of Cal­i­for­nia’s big­gest cor­po­ra­tions, in­clud­ing Bank of Amer­ica, Stan­dard Oil, Crown Zeller­bach and Pa­cific Tele­phone.

Field stepped away from the day-to-day op­er­a­tion of the com­mer­cial busi­ness in 1992 but stayed in­volved in the Cal­i­for­nia Poll, later re­named the Field Poll in his honor, well into his 90s, draft­ing ques­tion­naires and help­ing an­a­lyze the re­sults.

Field and his first wife, Vir­ginia, di­vorced in 1955. His sec­ond wife, Mar­i­lyn, died in 2005. He is sur­vived by two daugh­ters, Nancy and Me­lanie; a son, David; and a grand­son.

‘When the Field Poll came out, it was con­sid­ered ob­jec­tive. There was no way you could spin it.’

— Rich Robin­son, po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant

Field Re­search Corp.

AS A TEENAGER, Field be­came fas­ci­nated with polling while work­ing for Ge­orge Gallup.

Alan Dep As­so­ci­ated Press

POLL­STER At its height, Field Re­search em­ployed 100 pro­fes­sional

in­ter­view­ers.

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