The Evil Psychology of Exit Polls
If you live inside the Beltway, and you care about politics, late afternoon of every election day you start making calls to find out what the exit polls show. The content of these polls shape your last-minute expectations and will constitute much of the coverage and analysis as the night goes on. If you see Bill Schneider on your television screen, he is talking about an exit poll. The problem last night was that the exit polls were way wrong. At about 6:35 p.m., the Huffington Post leaked the exit polls, predicting that Obama would win New Jersey, Arizona and Massachusetts. In fact, he won none of those states. But, the expectations were set. On Fox News, Juan Williams noted that the polls were wrong before citing those same poll numbers to credit Hillary with winning the late deciding vote. I suppose being the Democratic voice on Fox News does not require much in the way of persuasive intellectual fireworks, but still. Translation: Fox, which is the media arm of the GOP, wants to run against Hillary. They virtually crowned her the comeback kid, even though she was supposedly winning in most of the Tsunami Tuesday states by huge margins as recently as a few weeks ago. Bill Schneider gave thoughtful analyses from the same exit polls, telling America how women had voted, how Latinos had voted, what issues mattered most. He neglected to say that the polls had failed to get the winning candidate correct. On ABC, Charlie Gibson noted that the exit polls indicated that late-deciding voters had broken towards Clinton by a significant margin, but did not share the bad news about those same polls misjudging entire states. Having invested so much in paying for the polls, and in those who analyze them, no one was willing to say the thing that needed to be said: the exit polls were worthless. If Bill Schneider ever speaks that heresy, he has nothing left to say for the rest of the night. On the Republican side, the exit polls were more accurate because the race was less close. McCain spanked Romney in every competitive state. The exit polls failed to detect the Huckabee surge in the South. That surge led him to win Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, the last three of which were critical to Romney’s desire to become the conservative alternative to Romney. The focus on exit poll data, however, kept the commentators from noting obvious facts like this one: McCain won the blue states, not the red ones, which means he has to spend the next few months strengthening his base. For the Democrats, Obama won more states (13) than Hillary (8) and according to Chuck Todd’s estimates on MSNBC, Obama won more 4 more delegates last night than Hillary, 841-837. The first wave of exit polls did not even take account of North Dakota, Idaho, Kansas, and Colorado, caucus states where Barack won by as much as 4-1. These are small states, but in terms of securing delegates, a big win in a small state sometimes yields more delegates than a narrow win in a big state. There is nothing to be done about exit polls and the psychology they produce. If I don’t get them by 7 p.m., I start to shake. Their "insider info" quality only inflates their importance. But, it should be clear by now, that they are as likely to distort coverage as to enlighten it. The premium on breaking news virtually guarantees that they will continue to be treated with undue respect. But, caveat emptor should be the watchword for the informed viewer. And the press has an obligation to tell the rest of us when the data it is looking at is demonstrably unreliable. Michael Sean Winters
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