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Behind the Controversy: A Primer on U.S. Presidential Exit Polls

By Mark Lindeman and Rick Brady

 

Part I. A Brief History of U.S. Exit Polls

 

The internet buzzed before noon on election day 2004 with news that exit polls showed Democrat John F. Kerry leading Republican incumbent George W. Bush in several crucial battleground states. Although warned midafternoon by the exit pollsters Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International of an apparent bias in the early waves of exit poll results, news anchors and commentators hinted at an impending Kerry victory.

When it became clear that Bush had won in the official vote count, dark allegations proliferated. On one hand, Republican consultant Dick Morris contended that the exit polls had been tampered with to give Kerry election day momentum. On the other, various observers argued—and some continue to argue—that the exit polls indicated massive vote fraud. Steve Freeman asserts that the exit poll data “indicate . . . a discrepancy on the order of 10 million votes” and “point sharply toward a corrupted count.”

Like many others, we found ourselves raising questions about exit polls that had never previously occurred to us. In many cases the answers were not readily available. One common question—how accurate have exit polls been in the past?—turned out to be very difficult to answer, although we know that one answer cited by Wikipedia (“‘usually accurate within a fraction of a point’”) is wrong. In this three-part article, we strive to provide a concise overview of exit poll history and practice in the United States, with the particular purpose of equipping readers to assess the debates about 2004. We begin here with a brief history of exit polls.

Exit polls have at least two purposes—to help project election outcomes, and to inform analysis by, in the words of the Edison/Mitofsky website, “deliver[ing] rich details of who voted and why.” Broadcast media sponsors have put considerable emphasis on speedy projection, allowing them to project, or “call,” state outcomes earlier than if they relied upon vote “quick counts” alone. Early projections also help the media to plan their coverage.

Analysis is at least as important as projection. All media sponsors, as well as academics and other observers, eagerly exploit the ability to make assertions about, say, what percentage of Catholics voted for the Democratic candidate, or the role of “moral values” in the outcome, based in part on exit poll data.

Some people have urged a third purpose for exit polls—as an independent check on the accuracy of election counts—and, certainly, in 2004, exit polls figured in debates about counts in the Chavez recall referendum in Venezuela, the presidential runoff in Ukraine, and the parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan. In the United States, major exit polls have never been designed to verify vote counts, although recently some local groups have experimented with “parallel elections” for this purpose.

The first exit poll was conducted in 1940, but that early experiment in Denver was limited and did not catch on. The exit poll era really began in 1967, when CBS attempted its first large-scale exit poll in the Kentucky gubernatorial race and achieved results that were reportedly quite accurate. CBS expanded exit polls to twenty states for the national presidential election of 1968; data files for these polls apparently still exist. NBC apparently conducted its first exit poll in 1973; ABC in 1980. Initially, exit polls were used only for on-air and post-election analysis.

The first great exit poll controversy began on election day in 1980. NBC, which had started incorporating exit poll data into its projections, relied on them to project Ronald Reagan as the winner of the presidential election at just 5:15 p.m. PSTalmost three hours before the West Coast polls closed. Critics argued that the early call depressed voter turnout in the West and may have determined the outcomes of several close congressional races. A number of studies provided evidence of a depressing effect, which was challenged by others. Some states passed laws that sought to prevent exit polling—for instance, Wyoming and Washington laws required interviewers to stand at least three hundred feet from the polls. Prior to the 1988 election, the Washington law was struck down in federal court as an infringement on freedom of the press, and other similar state laws were subsequently struck down or repealed.

The enduring impact of NBC’s early call was to persuade its competitors to incorporate exit poll data in their own projections from 1982 on. In 1980, NBC had made its call about ninety minutes before ABC and two hours before CBS. That would not happen again.

 

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