Mervin D. Field dies at 94; creator of California opinion gauge now called Field Poll

Obituary: Mervin D. Field, who created the California opinion gauge now called Field Poll, was 94

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 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, an emeritus professor 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 standup 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 briefly 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-table-cloth 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.

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