Dan Merkle ’87

Alumnus Dan Merkle is executive director of elections at ABC News, where he’s responsible for all election data, statistical models and computer systems used by ABC for primary and general elections. On election nights, he leads the decision team that is responsible for projecting the outcome of each race using a variety of data and statistical models. He’s also in charge of setting and enforcing poll reporting standards for the entire news division. On a daily basis he vets polls and other social science research from outside sources for the news division, to ensure that such research being considered for air meets ABC News’ standards for disclosure, validity and reliability.

The author of over 60 conference papers, journal articles and book chapters, Merkle has been elected four times to the Executive Council of the American Association for Public Opinion Research as secretary/treasurer, counselor-at-large, conference chair and communications chair. He has served as associate editor of Public Opinion Quarterly, as a member of the advisory committee for the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, and was also on the advisory board of the Encyclopedia of Survey Research Methods.

It’s interesting to see where Merkle’s career path has led him, because he actually started at the University of St. Francis with a focus on pursuing radio broadcasting. Merkle became involved with USF’s radio station as a DJ, moved up the ranks of leadership until he became station manager, and was voted “Best DJ” by his peers. Because USF was in a small media market, he also had the opportunity to work on the air at two commercial radio stations in Joliet, WJTW and WJRC.

While Merkle had some of his best times working in radio, one USF course in particular started him thinking about moving in a different direction: Professor Rick Lorenc’s “Theory and Research in Persuasion” class. Merkle found the social science research on opinion formation, change and measurement to be particularly fascinating. Not only did Lorenc quickly become Merkle’s favorite teacher, but Merkle feels that Lorenc’s classes were some of the most challenging and rewarding courses he took.

That theory and research course was one of the reasons Merkle decided to go to graduate school at Northwestern University, where he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in communication research. Much of his graduate work focused on public opinion theory and opinion measurement. As a public opinion researcher and survey methodologist, his interest in this area continues to this day.
Merkle’s first job was in the Northwestern University Survey Laboratory. There, he not only met his wife, Sandra Bauman, but also gained experience in survey research. That research came in handy after he received his Ph.D. and was hired to be director of surveys at Voter News Service (VNS), a research consortium of ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, NBC News and the Associated Press in New York City.

He worked at VNS for five years before assuming the role of assistant director of polling at ABC News, where he designed and analyzed public opinion polls for ABC News outlets such as World News, Nightline, 20/20, This Week, PrimeTime, Good Morning America, ABC Radio and ABCNews.com. In that role, he worked on over 175 polls on a variety of topics and wrote over 100 poll stories for publication on ABCNews.com.

“Through working at VNS I was able to get to know the key players at each of the networks, and that is the reason I was offered the job at ABC News. Nineteen years later, I am still at ABC News and still enjoying it,” said Merkle.

Merkle feels the writing, communication and journalism skills he learned at USF come in handy every day in his role.

“For example, when vetting polls at ABC News I regularly interact with producers and correspondents providing guidance about poll methodology, newsworthiness, and how to interpret and report the data. Basically, a poll is like any other news source that needs to be evaluated to determine if it’s a reliable source before reporting it. It is important to provide timely, concise, understandable guidance on what can be technical material,” he said.

When it’s not election season, Merkle’s most enjoyable moments are those spent boating, swimming, kayaking and hiking with his family—Sandra and their children David and Catherine—at their upstate New York lake house. Also, though Merkle has lived in the New York area for 24 years now, he’s still an avid fan of Chicago’s sports teams—the Bears, Cubs, Blackhawks and Bulls.

“Anytime I have a chance to travel back for a game or to see my favorite Chicago-based band, Poi Dog Pondering, I do!”