Remembering the father of exit polling

In four decades of election polling, Warren Mitofsky pioneered the science that has quickly shown voters in America and abroad who won their elections and why.

Mitofsky, who also helped develop a widely used telephone sampling method and set survey research industry standards, died Friday in New York City of an aortic aneurysm at age 71.

Mitofsky developed the election projection and analysis system used by CBS News and later by a consortium of news organizations. He first conducted an exit poll in 1967 in a Kentucky governor’s election for CBS News. He conducted the first national exit poll in 1972 and covered nearly 3,000 electoral contests in all.

“It’s because of Warren Mitofsky that America — and the world — has become accustomed to learning who won an election quickly and reliably, and what the election meant to the voters themselves,” said Kathleen Frankovic, director of surveys at CBS News. “Without him, we might still be guessing why elections turn out the way they do.”

Mitofsky was executive director of CBS News election and survey unit from 1967 until 1990. In 1976 he and editors at The New York Times established a polling collaboration that became a model for rival partnerships.

Early in his career Mitofsky worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, designing surveys that looked at poverty and other social concerns.

While at CBS Mitofsky and fellow researcher Joseph Waksberg invented a way to sample households by telephone to efficiently reach people with unlisted as well as listed phone numbers. The random digit dial method now is a survey research standard. Waksberg died in January at age 90.

As president and in other roles with the American Association for Public Opinion Research and the National Council of Public Polls, Mitofsky led in setting survey research industry standards for best practices and disclosure and in reviewing polls’ performance. In 1999 AAPOR gave him its lifetime achievement award for “his continuing concern for survey quality.”

Mitofsky was known for his willingness to share his strong opinions. Many colleagues have experienced “the creativity, passion and dedication that he has brought to his work and have the scars to prove it,” said longtime colleague Murray Edelman.

Mitofsky directed exit polls in the 1990 and 1992 U.S. elections for the first network election pool, Voter Research & Surveys, which later became Voter News Service. In 1993 Mitofsky founded Mitofsky International and conducted exit polls in many countries, including Russia, Mexico, the Philippines and Azerbaijan. He conducted his last exit poll in July in Mexico.

After Voter News Service disbanded because of problems covering the 2000 and 2002 elections, Mitofsky International joined with Edison Media Research to conducted U.S. exit polls for The Associated Press and television networks.

In the November 2004 election the surveys were criticized for leaked results that in some cases did not accurately project the outcome. Mitofsky complained that leaks of such preliminary data were irresponsible but acknowledged that some of the final samples did not produce accurate vote estimates.

After he accurately projected the virtual tie in the Mexican election Mitofsky said in an interview on the Pew Research Center Web site that better interviewer training may have been part of the reason.

Mitofsky had been preparing for U.S. election coverage in November. When he checked into a hospital Friday afternoon he asked his wife, Mia Mather, to go to his office and pick up work for him to do over the weekend, said Joe Lenski, his exit poll partner at Edison Media Research. “He sounded and acted like Warren to the end,” Lenski said.


Associated Press Writer Will Lester contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press