Election 2008

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Exit Polls: Predictive or Destructive?

November 04, 2008 06:00 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
Exit polls have misled the media in their efforts to predict the winners of past presidential elections. In 2008, can exit polls be trusted?

Exit Polls and the 2008 Election

News organizations may be hoping that the third time is a charm with the use of exit polls in the 2008 election. Inaccuracies in polls from the past two presidential elections have affected how people view their usefulness.

In 2000, polls suggested that Al Gore would win the race in Florida, while 2004 numbers seemed to favor John Kerry to win the presidency.

This year, the media says it wants to get things right.

“The lessons of ’04 that have been applied to exit polls since then are that interviewers need to have better training, that you need to be cautious in looking at the results,” CBS News polling director Kathy Frankovic said in a Variety article.

Organizations say they’re also taking extra precautions to use polls accurately and prevent results from being leaked early. Media representatives participating in the Election News Pool on Nov. 4 will spend considerable time studying data in a room where no cell phones or Internet connections are allowed, according to Kate Pickert of Time.

They are trying to give themselves time to uncover any problems with numbers and help prevent false information that could influence voter turnout from being leaked.

In races where results are likely to be particularly close, ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said that “networks will have to resist the competitive temptation to project winners based on exit polls,” Variety reported.

“Quarantine or no, news outlets still remember Florida in 2000; if swing-state races appear tight when the last polls close, odds are the media will be cagier about releasing early results—no matter how good the data look,” Pickert wrote.

The Appeal of Exit Polls

“Exit polls have lost some of their luster in recent years, but who can avoid the temptation of an advance look at how important races are likely to turn out?” asked Rick Edmonds of Poynter Online.

Edmonds stated that some of the worst exit poll failures have occurred during close races, and were helpful in “more typical elections.” He pointed out that Phil Meyer, author of “The New Precision Journalism,” also felt that exit polls are important because they aren’t reports of people who might vote, but people who did vote.

Background: Exit poll downfalls

Voter Influence

Exit polls have been criticized for their potential influence on voters in the western United States. In 1988, Cheryl Sullivan and Scott Armstrong wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, “Go directly to the polls. Do not pass your TV set.” The concern at the time was that if George Bush dominated the presidential election, the contest could have effectively ended before Westerners finished voting. “We think it has a chilling effect on the electorate,” said Washington state Democratic chairwoman Karen Marchioro. “People should feel every single vote is a vote that counts.”


Election predictions were notoriously problematic in 2000, when news networks projected that Al Gore had won Florida, “only to retract that call and later—again wrongly—award the state and the White House to George W. Bush,” according to the Chicago Tribune.

Exit polls were cited as a large part of the problem with calling the 2000 election. In 2004, news officials stated that they wanted to be sure to avoid the mistakes of the past. Others weren’t convinced enough had been done to stop further problems.

“The mistakes they made seem to dissolve like sugar in coffee,” Joan Konner, dean emerita of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, stated. “They just go away.”

By 2004, some troubles with exit polls still weren’t fixed. In fact, Richard Morin and Claudia Deane of The Washington Post wrote, “Interviewing for the 2004 exit polls was the most inaccurate of any in the past five presidential elections.” Procedural problems and a refusal by many Republican voters to be surveyed incorrectly led results to favor John Kerry.

Exit pollsters said the flaws didn’t lead to an incorrect projection in any state, but that data was merely “overstated.”

Reference: Exit poll basics


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