The Exit Poll Scandal Is Coming: Ignore It
On Tuesday afternoon, the web will be buzzing with news of leaked exit polls.
These raw numbers will spark theories, bolster partisan expectations by some and lead to frenzied claims of bias by others. It will make the media firestorm spent litigating Nate Silver’s projections seem like a tempest in a teapot. And every minute spent worrying about and debating the exit polls will be a waste of time.
For decades, exit polls have been a way for media organizations and academics to study the composition of the electorate and make initial projections on election night. The results of these surveys, which are taken in several waves, are not supposed to be released until polls close. Needless to say, in the Internet era, they always do–often to Matt Drudge–and the problem is that they are invariably wrong.
In 2004, early exit polls that leaked had John Kerry as the winner, leading to a premature celebration in the Democratic nominee’s campaign where his chief consultant, Bob Shrum, had started addressing Kerry as Mr. President. This trend has continued since. For example, in the 2008 Democratic primary, the exit polls done for the networks and the AP had Barack Obama winning a decisive victory on Super Tuesday, enabling him to clinch the Democratic nomination in February. Needless to say, the exits were wrong.
The issue is that exit polls are simply polls, not actually counting the votes. Further, some voters may be over-sampled and others under-sampled so that the raw numbers may be somewhat misleading. The accuracy of exit polls has been further lessened this year , when early voting has become a huge factor.
If the media’s exit polls don’t match the final vote tallies, it isn’t a sign of a surprise swing in support, let alone some sort of electoral scandal. Instead, it just means exit polls are imperfect and no amount of wishful thing or agonized impatience will change that on Tuesday.
Keep that in mind when you see the screaming headlines online.
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