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Beware the Exit Polls, Experts Caution

By David A. Patten   |  

One surefire way to avoid being misled by election-night exit polling: Ignore the TV pundits and turn out to vote for your preferred candidate, regardless of what the networks tell you.

Exit polls were never designed to predict the outcome of political contests and are inherently risky, many pollsters maintain.

Debacles from recent elections provide plenty of examples.

“Because of the sampling error, exit poll data is only useful as a sole source of predicting elections if there is a landslide,” said Joe Lenski, co-founder of Edison Media Research, following the exit-poll snafu of 2000.

That year, the TV networks pronounced that Sen. Al Gore had scored a win over George Bush in Florida.

Unfortunately that declaration, which turned out to be false, came more than an hour before polls closedin the heavily Republican panhandle region, the only part of the state in the central time zone. Bush was left with a nano-thin margin in Florida, and the election’s outcome was decided only when the Supreme Court intervened to uphold the verdict of Florida voters.

Exit poll results in 2004 were even more erroneous, the least accurate of any in the past five presidential elections. Throughout the evening the national media showed Sen. John Kerry leading Bush by 51 percent to 48 percent. Yet Bush ended up winning the election by about 3 percentage points.

Subsequent analysis showed that Republicans had refused in large numbers to tell exit-poll operatives who they voted for. The exit polls disproportionately reflected Democratic ballots.

Although one might hope pollsters have learned from previous blunders, this year’s election figures to be especially tricky to gauge because of a massive influx of newly registered and young voters.

Will new voters cast ballots in the modest numbers seen historically, or will they turn out massively, presumably to support Obama? No one knows.

Another important factor that could skew the results: The large number of early voters who have already cast their ballots. Pollsters have been conducting extensive telephone surveys to measure the voting patterns of those who cast their ballots early this election.

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One surefire way to avoid being misled by election-night exit polling: Ignore the TV pundits and turn out to vote for your preferred candidate, regardless of what the networks tell you.Exit polls were never designed to predict the outcome of political contests and are...
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