More Mitofsky mischief

In May 2003, I suggested in this space that the exit polls would need more than a makeover. I also questioned the wisdom of putting veteran exit pollster Warren Mitofsky in charge.

Shortly thereafter, I received a telephone call from Mitofsky, who, naturally, expressed his disagreement with my opinions. Later in the year, I heard from Mitofsky again when I criticized his exit polls in the California gubernatorial recall election.In May 2003, I suggested in this space that the exit polls would need more than a makeover. I also questioned the wisdom of putting veteran exit pollster Warren Mitofsky in charge.

Shortly thereafter, I received a telephone call from Mitofsky, who, naturally, expressed his disagreement with my opinions. Later in the year, I heard from Mitofsky again when I criticized his exit polls in the California gubernatorial recall election.

I’ll say this for him: Mitofsky is a great flack. And he must be a great salesman.

Anyone who can talk the networks into giving him $10 million for the mess he produced is a charmer.

But let’s be clear on one point. Despite Mitofsky’s great reputation, it is becoming clearer every election that he’s not very good at what he purports to do well: namely, running exit-polling operations.

Even John Zogby, whose record for polling accuracy took another solid blow in 2004, was quoted as saying that “the exit polls were terrible.” Neal Shapiro of NBC News said after a recent network forum that the exit polls “should have been better.” The Washington Post’s managing editor said the exit polling “wasn’t worth what we paid for it.”

To his credit, Mitofsky hasn’t gone into hiding. He’s been out there flacking. And he’s running a tag-team operation with his associate Joe Lenski.

Lenski is the young, angry “bad cop” who attacks critics, while Mitofsky plays the role of the older, friendlier “good cop.” Lenski attacks bloggers, while Mitofsky soothes Jim Lehrer. Lenski savages the early release of numbers by his clients, while Mitofsky promises an explanatory report.

These two charlatans have doubtless met and decided to bully and sweet-talk their way into a $20 million budget for 2008. But in the meanwhile, the two cops are being called upon to explain where the 10 million doughnuts went this time.

The excuses have trickled out over time. One early excuse involved computer server problems. For $10 million, one would think that redundancy would have been part of the package.

Subsequently, Mitofsky and others have acknowledged potential sampling problems.

Perhaps Kerry voters were more willing to be interviewed than Bush voters. Perhaps the exit-pollster interviewers were forced to do their work too far from the polling place to get to a random sample of voters. Perhaps there were different voting patterns at different times of day that the exit pollster could not pick up.

All of those problems, however, pale in comparison to the ethical issue I raised last year — the leaking of exit polls early in the day before the closing of the polls. During a phone conversation, Mitofsky expressed concern to me on this issue but said that he had no control over it. I suggested that as a professional, he might summon the courage to refuse to release the early results. He demurred.

Mitofsky knows that those exit-poll results are the crack cocaine of Election Day talking heads. And as their dealer, Mitofsky needs the money that the crack heads will pay to satisfy their habits. Professional ethics and standards be damned.

Warren says, “Show me the money.” Let’s hope he wasn’t playing the stock market Nov. 2 when his selfishness roiled Wall Street.

Whatever happens in the future, the most serious consequence of Mitofsky’s 2004 mischief is still unfolding. Suspicious Americans are being led to believe that Mitofsky’s exit polls are a reason for questioning the legitimacy of this election. The exit polls were correct, paranoid types reason, but Republicans rigged voting devices to steal the election. There are more than a few people who firmly believe this. And the fact that Mitofsky supposedly won’t release his “raw data” reaffirms the suspicions of the paranoid.

Before his legacy is totally besmirched, Mitofsky should take retirement and watch the election results with the rest of us next time.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.