A Brief History of the Los Angeles Times Poll

The Los Angeles Times Poll has been conducting surveys for publication in the newspaper for over twenty years, starting as a part-time experiment, expanding to a three person full-time department in 1980 and finally computerizing and expanding to its present size and configuration in 1984. The Times Poll has conducted well over 400 surveys in its history, including exit polls of every presidential and California gubernatorial election during that time.

The Early Years

Before the creation of the Los Angeles Times Poll, the newspaper relied on publicly available survey data from the Field Poll (at the time called "The California Poll") for election information and other public opinion research. This data was not exclusive to The Times, and there was no opportunity to ask questions of interest to specific newspaper sections. Other major newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post had their own polling organizations, and the decision was made to experiment with the idea of forming an in-house survey department here.

The first exclusive Los Angeles Times survey was conducted in early December 1977 by Decision Making Information, a local survey company. The poll, published in our paper as the Los Angeles Times Poll, surveyed Los Angeles City residents and included questions measuring approval ratings for California Governer Jerry Brown (68%) and Chief of Police Edward Davis (56%). Assistant Managing Editor John Foley asked veteran pollster Irwin A. "Bud" Lewis to fly in from New York to analyze the poll and work as a consultant with the reporters on the story.

Bud Lewis, an early pioneer of the art and science of survey research, was generally credited with inventing the art of exit polling in the late sixties, being the first to station interviewers outside polling places to interview voters as they exited after voting. Exit polling is still conducted in this manner today. When John Foley contacted Lewis to ask him to act as analyst for the new "department," Lewis was Vice President of the Roper Organization. Lewis agreed to act as consultant, but retained his relationship with Roper.

The first experiment with in-house survey research was a success, so Foley hired a Los Angeles based Field Director who could organize an interviewing staff and conduct surveys for publication in the paper. Susan Pinkus was hired for this job, working part-time for Editorial and part-time for the Marketing Research department. Lewis continued his cross-continental commute for the next two years, flying out to Los Angeles twenty-one times to analyze data for publication.

In 1980, with two exit polls, eighteen political surveys of the United States and one of Mexico City under its belt, the paper committed fully to its new department. Lewis moved from Manhattan to Silverlake to reduce his commute, since he would now become full-time Director of the Times Poll; and he hired an Assistant Director and a Data Coordinator, doubling the size of the department. The Times Poll conducted seventeen polls that year, including six state primary election exit polls and one measuring opinion fifteen years after the Watts riots. The Times Poll was off and running, keeping up or accelerating the pace through the next eighteen years. Lewis kept a flask labelled "holy water" sitting on his desk among his collection of wind-up toys and other memorabilia and years later would tell the story of how Foley flew him out from New York in the early days to "sprinkle holy water" on the paper's first poll stories.

Off and Running

In 1984, the Times Poll expanded again. Susan Pinkus was promoted to Assistant Director and a full-time programmer was hired. The archive of survey data was moved into a central location for the first time, and the Poll's analysis programs were extensively updated. The department acquired its first personal computers and gratefully retired its thermal-paper print terminals. The small but active Times Poll began to acquire a national reputation for polling excellence, accomplishing research that the television networks barely matched with huge staffs and budgets.

Bud Lewis was interested in crafting a national and international survey organization and the focus of the Times Poll under his directorship was wide in scope. In addition to Los Angeles and California surveys, the Times Poll researched criminal probation records, candidate contributions, House voting records, and undertook a survey of the nation's newspaper journalists and editors. In 1985, the Times Poll conducted a ground-breaking survey of adults who were abused as children, a survey of national attitudes about the spread of AIDS, a survey of US-USSR relations and another of Japanese-US trade relations. Over the five years between 1985 and 1990, the Times Poll participated in surveys of Nicaragua, Germany, France, Great Britain, Poland and the USSR.

Shortly after his return from the USSR, Bud fell ill with what was soon diagnosed as cancer. He worked a short while longer before he passed away, in 1990. At the time of his death, the Times Poll had conducted 236 surveys and was one of only two remaining survey research organizations in the country that conducted national election exit polls.

John W. Brennan Jr., like Bud Lewis before him, was working at the Roper Organization when he was recruited to head up the Times Poll. Brennan relocated to the West Coast in 1991 and hit the ground running with a survey of the nation's reaction to the conflict with Iraq. Brennan focused the department on the needs of the paper's local sections and local populations, in keeping with the new economic climate of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Times. John also increased the Times Poll's visibility through the publication of same-day press releases and final "stat sheets" -- several page summaries of a survey's most interesting information.

In response to the difficulties of obtaining enough interviews with Asians in our polls, Brennan designed a series of culture-specific surveys of Southern California Asian populations, beginning with a survey of Koreans and Korean-Americans living in Los Angeles County. Other interesting surveys conducted during Brennan's era were an on-site sampling of people staying in shelters after the Northridge earthquake, research into the rank-and-file's attitudes toward gays in the military, and a controversial study of Roman Catholic priests and nuns. Illness cut John Brennan's career short in 1995 at the age of 41.

As Acting Director, Susan Pinkus guided the Times Poll through the 1996 election year and was promoted to the position of Director in March 1997. Under Pinkus' leadership the Times Poll has continued to focus on both local and national issues, measuring the surge in Latino voting in Los Angeles during the 1997 mayoral election and tracking the nation's shifting attitudes toward the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal throughout 1998.

The Asian survey series has continued, with a 1997 poll of Chinese and Chinese-Americans in Southern California. For that survey the Times Poll partnered with a Hong Kong-based polling organization to ask parallel questions of Hong Kong residents. The surveys were conducted just before the 1997 reversion of Hong Kong to China. In 1998 a similar transnational study of Jews in America and in Israel was conducted by the Times Poll in conjunction with an Israeli newspaper on the occasion of the state of Israel's 50th anniversary.

1998 also saw the inauguration of the Poll's long-awaited CATI facility (Computer-Assisted Telephone Interviewing). With new computer workstations and telephone interviewing software up and running, interviews could now be collected more efficiently and the data processed much more rapidly than had been possible during the Poll's first 20 years, when the pollsters were equipped with paper questionnaires and lots of red pencils.

The Times Poll has conducted well over 400 surveys in its 20-plus years, including every type of statistically valid survey. The Poll enjoys a reputation for excellent work, functioning at a high level of credibility in political and public opinion research. The Times Poll is currently the only organization that provides an alternative to the exit polls conducted by the network-funded consortium Voter News Service during presidential elections. Throughout its history, the Poll has added a public voice to the Los Angeles Times, providing an alternative to punditry and conventional wisdom and enhancing the newspaper's coverage of current events.