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Exit Polls Miss Election Goals
Monday November 22, 2004
In yesterday's Washington Post, director of polling Rich Morin wrote about the abysmal failure of the exit polls to predict the winner on election day.
To review the bidding, beginning in early afternoon, exit polls showed Senator Kerry leading by a little in most of the battleground states and by a lot in some others. For example, the early polls had Kerry leading in Florida by about four percentage points and in Pennsylvania by 16. [When the votes were actually counted, Bush won Florida by five percentage points (52-47) and Kerry won Pennsylvania by about two (51-49).]
As was stated here after the election, anyone who claims to have been unaffected by those early polls is lying. EVERYONE was affected one way or the other depending upon which candidate they were backing.
Exit polls are paid for by the major news outlets. In 2000 the exit polls in Florida led to a mis-call of the state for Governor Bush which later had to be withdrawn. In 2002 the exit poll system completely broke down and the data were useless. In 2004, the early data were, at a minimum, incomplete and, at a maximum, flat wrong.
Mr. Morin blames the seven hour roller-coaster which began in the early afternoon on November 2 and extended until about ten o'clock that night largely on "those self-important bloggers who took it upon themselves to release the first rounds of leaked exit poll results."
It was not a problem with "self-important bloggers;" the principal blogger in question being Matt Drudge. Before there WERE bloggers everyone who needed (or just wanted) the numbers got them because Washington, DC is a one-industry town: Politics.
Every political hack in town knows at least one reporter who has access to the data and many reporters will share the data with a trusted political hack in return for a comment on what the political hack thinks the data mean.
The incorrect (or incomplete) data on November 2 had a significant impact on the outcome of the election. The impact was much more subtle than fewer or greater numbers of voters turning out for one candidate or another.
Throughout the afternoon and well into election night, the Kerry people thought they were winning. If they were winning they could not complain about how the election was being conducted. The thousands of lawyers the Kerry campaign had deployed to the battleground states could not file challenges because they didn't want their own people to call into question the legitimacy of the process.
By the time it became clear that President Bush was likely to win, it was too late for the Kerry campaign to go back to the news media and complain that there were problems with the election.
The only reason to conduct exit polls is to give the media - in particular the video media - a story line which they can follow beginning with the nightly newscasts. While they cannot - and do not - flatly state that one candidate will win when the votes are finally counted six or seven hours later they can - and do - give their viewers an idea of what is going on with winks and nods and hints that one or another subgroup is over- or under-performing with respect to one or another candidate.
By convention, networks do not "call" a state until the polls in that state have closed. It is the exit polling which allows them, at the top of each hour, to be comfortable in telling you who won and who lost in states whose polls have just closed in spite of the fact that the first vote may not yet have been tabulated.
November 2 reminded us that, not withstanding the proficiency or the incompetence of pollsters and those who depend upon them, there is a reason we actually hold the elections and actually count the votes.
On the Secret Decoder Ring today: A link to the Rich Morin piece and, I should have thought about this earlier this month: Starting today, and continuing every Monday for the next six months, I will put the link to the Iraq Travelogue from the corresponding week a year ago. If you missed them please take a look.
Copyright © 2004 Richard A. Galen
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