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Merv Field at 93: A Tribute to California’s “Swami”

Mar10

mervin_field-210x300Mervin Field, a pioneer in using non-partisan public opinion research to analyze and interpret politics, will be feted, honored and gushed over by friends, colleagues and neighbors on his Marin County hometown turf tonight.

On the eve of Field’s 93rd birthday, we enthusiastically join the Town of Tiburon — which is to host a community celebration of his life and work in its council chambers this evening — in lauding Merv and the 67 years during which nearly 2,500 Field Poll reports have helped explain the Golden State to its citizens and to the nation.

jerrynew“In my lifetime,” Governor Jerry Brown told Calbuzz, “the use of political polls has dramatically increased. This sea change – to no small degree – has been due to the work of Merv Field. As a longtime consumer of these polls, I salute Merv and his dedicated life of service to California.”

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in an email that, “Merv Field’s name and work are synonymous with civic engagement and public opinion in the state of California. 

“Merv is a walking encyclopedia of California political knowledge, and for nearly seven decades, the Field Poll has sepelosirved as the gold standard of opinion research, information, and analysis,” Pelosi added.

For many years, Field has been not only a go-to source, but also a counselor, mentor and sounding board for both the vast, far-flung Calbuzz editorial team, and for public affairs reporters and political professionals throughout the state. He is known to insiders as “The Swami,” a nickname bestowed when he performed as a turban-topped soothsayer at “The Party’s Not Over,” an annual hacks and flacks bash, led by a “non semi-steering committee” (whose membership included Field and Pelosi, among others) which had a long run during the 1980s and ‘90s at Bimbo’s in San Francisco.

“I clearly remember the first time I met the man who to me was a superstar,” recalled now-superstar Democratic consultant Gale Kaufman. “It was one of the political dinners at Bimbo’s and he was just so charming, funny and smart. He didn’t know me from a hole in the wall and yet he and I had a thoughtful intense conversation. His analysis of California issues has always been a cut above. He was always willing to talk to those of us coming up in the profession, to answer questions and share insights.”

gallupField meets Gallup: Field’s passion for polling political, policy and marketing issues began in 1937, when he got the chance during high school to meet George Gallup, America’s vanguard pollster, who had started his company two years before.

Field began in the profession when survey takers went door-to-door with clipboards and results were hand-tabulated. Establishing genuine random samples was a challenge until the telephone became ubiquitous. By the 1970s, it became easier for pollsters to create random samples of the population, whose opinions could represent the views of the whole population in much the same way a blood sample tells physicians what’s going on in the body without testing all of a person’s blood.

Field was a pioneer in scientific polling using the telephone and, in the 21st Century, with Mark DiCamillo directing survey operations, has overseen his firm’s transition to the use of voter lists and cell phones as a means of fully reaching the voting population. While most of the Field Institute’s income is derived from complex polling for governments, civic groups, corporations and educational institutions, its timely political surveys are what catches public attention.

All of which has helped make polling – and especially the Field Poll – ever more popular and influential.

trippi“When Merv Field’s polls differed from our campaign polls I always believed his,” said Democratic consultant Joe Trippi, who helped Brown return to the governor’s office in 2010. “He was that good. For a pioneer who measured the ups and downs of campaigns and issues, Merv Field rose to the top and stayed there — a giant.”

From button-down to bedlam:  For many years, California political reporters were pestered and harassed by campaign operatives (and, in big races, by East Coast colleagues) to disclose the dates and times when the Field Poll would be released — closely held information known only to news organizations that paid for subscriptions to the poll — because of its influence in informing and influencing the pre-election opinions of voters.

Field’s once-singular position in the marketplace, however, today has been lost to the nihilistic bedlam of countless polls pushed out non-stop by news outlets, campaigns and cheap, quick-buck artists. Polling pandemonium now blares and echoes across the 24/7 cable and internet news cycles, broadcast, published and ignorantly discussed without regard to quality, methodology or statistical validity, amid the second-by-second eyeballs race to be first, new and buzzworthy.

Which makes our blood boil.

mcnallyThe down side: Not only do news organizations often mischaracterize poll findings, frequently lending significance to differences that are within the margin of error, but they often use polling as a substitute for more serious reporting of candidates’ stands on issues, their backgrounds, the veracity of their arguments and the quality of their campaigns. Instead of examining these kinds of issues, some news organizations rely almost entirely on horse-race reporting of candidates’ standings.

This, according to many in the political world, has not been an improvement in political coverage. And while he remains perhaps the most influential pollster in California (the free-to-all Public Policy Institute of California polls overseen by Mark Baldassare, and the USC/Los Angeles Times poll also have substantial weight and reach), Field comes in for his share of criticism for the current state of affairs.

“Merv’s impact on California politics has been profound, but not all for the better,” Republican consultant Ray McNally told us. “Unquestionably, his polling has brought insight and excitement to political contests. But it has also been a major driver behind how the media cover campaigns, changing the focus from issues and substance to campaign mechanics in which the breaking news is who’s ahead. Instead of debates, we have horse races,” he said.

galekaufmann“Early polling has destroyed potentially great candidates and bolstered mediocre ones based solely on name ID, often months before the race begins. And that’s not healthy for democracy.”

“The Field Poll opened the door for every other California public poll to exist and for private polling to emulate — so many polls, such different methods and so much hype,” noted Kaufman. “(But) Merv is a class act whose love for politics, accuracy and professional ethics I believe we all respect.”

Bottom line. From Leader Pelosi: “Californians understand our state, our communities, and our political issues and leadership better thanks to Merv Field.”

More Field Notes Five things you may not know about Merv Field:

1-He played football with Albert Einstein. Sort of. During the Depression, he caddied at a golf course in Princeton, New Jersey, where he and his colleagues sometimes played touch football. As Princeton professor Einstein walked by one day, the ball sailed over Merv’s head; the great man returned it to Field with a soccer-style kick.

2-He cheated death in the Merchant Marine. Merv served three years on transport ships during World War II and survived Nazi U-boat attacks, as well as collisions at sea. When he was off-duty, such incidents  annoyingly interrupted his off-duty hours reading about survey research.

3-He is a Herb Caen-style three-dot columnist. For years Merv has written “Merv Field’s File,” an items column for The Ark, a paid subscription weekly paper serving Tiburon, Belvedere, Strawberry and East Corte Madera. Quick sample: “Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, ‘Where have I gone wrong?’  Then a voice says to me, ‘this is going to take more than one night.’” Ba-dum-dum.

Lawrence-Welk-9527209-1-4024-He has a close connection to Lawrence Welk. Merv was born on March 11, 1921, the same day as the great American mathematician Frank Harary, who helped invent graph theory. He also shares a birthday with Shemp Howard, Rupert Murdoch and the iconic late bandleader and accordionist Lawrence “Wun’erful Wun’erful” Welk.

5-He’s one of the top 30 of the 20th.  In its last pre-millennium issue, the late, lamented California Journal listed the 30 people who most influenced California government and politics in the 20th Century, including Merv: Over the past half century, Field and his poll have defined California politics…In the national media, the myth grew that if you want to see America tomorrow, look at California today. And Field became the lens through which most of the nation viewed California.


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There are 6 comments for this post

  1. avatar Hank Plante says:

    Merv Field was also one of the few pollsters to correctly predict Truman would defeat Dewey 1948. Even he was skeptical of his own research, since he was all alone among pollsters, but he stuck by his new method of research, which was the first model to focus on “likely” voters.

  2. avatar centralcoastcj says:

    #6 – He’s a chess whiz who loved (maybe still does) to win against his computer opponent.

  3. avatar markzbarabak says:

    Nice tribute and very well deserved. Giving credit where due, it was actually the late, much beloved Kam Kuwata who came up with “The Swami” appellation in the final days of the epic Cranston-Zschau 1986 US Senate race. If memory serves, it was the Friday before the Tuesday election at a stop in Riverside, or thereabouts, when the final Field Poll came out showing the race neck-and-neck. For reasons that escape, the Cranston forces wanted to downplay the poll–even tho it tracked their own surveys–so Kam made fun of the poll and belittled Merv as “the Swami,” in characteristic tongue-in-check Kuwata fashion. After the election, to make up, Kam presented Merv with the swami hat he wore as emcee at aforementioned Party’s Not Over. Merv, being Merv, took it all in good humor and embraced the title/mzb

    • avatar pjhackenflack says:

      It was in fact the late great Mr. Kuwata who first called Merv “Swami,” although Dr. H. recalled that Field was already doing Carnac bit at Party’s Not Over before the Cranston-Zschau race. But, hey, you’re younger than me so I’ll take your word for it.

  4. avatar allan says:

    Merv is truly a Local Living Treasure on the Tiburon Peninsula…
    Probably our biggest ever gathering at Tiburon Town Hall honoring him last night on eve of his 93rd b’day.

  5. avatar kpminott says:

    I recall several rollicking lunches with Mr. Field at Diane and Rollin Post’s house … the 1960s/1970s were heady times.

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