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November 5, 2004
Exit Polling Samples Not Reliable: NYT

The stone golem of the 2000 election was the hanging chad, and this time around it looks like exit polling. Two reports out today continue the post-mortems on the National Election Pool, one discounting allegations of conspiracy theories and the other boosting them. First, Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times has reviewed a clandestine copy of the pollsters' final report on the debacle, proving yet again that the NEP has major security issues. The pollsters blame sampling difficulties and the infidelity of its clients for the problems:

The report, written by Joe Lenski and Warren Mitofsky and obtained by The New York Times, details systemic glitches that skewed the data in ways of which several news organizations, who paid tens of thousands of dollars for the service, were not aware.

In some cases, the report said, survey takers could not get close enough to the polls to collect adequate samples of voters opinion. They were often stopped by legal barriers devised to keep people electioneering - not necessarily bona fide poll canvassers - away from voters.

The report also theorized that the poll results more frequently overstated support for Mr. Kerry than for President Bush because the Democratic nominee's supporters were more open to pollsters. Whatever the case, according to the report, the surveys had the biggest partisan skew since at least 1988, the earliest election the report tracked.

That story differs from the statements made by Lenski and Mitofsky yesterday, when they insisted that their final numbers came almost exactly into line with the final balloting. The difference doesn't just relate to the reluctance of the networks to call states for Bush where he obviously had comfortable leads. In some cases, the faulty data cost NEP subscribers money and time. Washington Post editor Steve Coll told Rutenberg that the final set of numbers had it reversed, with Kerry topping Bush by three points. Coll made the assumption that a three-point margin would mean a sure Electoral College victory -- a safe bet -- and made decisions on the paper's Wednesday publication that had to be reversed at the last minute when the vote counts showed the NEP to be seriously compromised.

Speaking of compromising, Rutenberg says the report specifically refutes the conpiracy-theory notion that the exit polling was accurate and the final vote counts are wrong. Diehard partisans on the Left have begun spouting that theory, yet another method to call Bush's legitimacy into question and one that addresses the sense of unreality they feel in dealing with Bush's victory.

On the other hand, leftist partisans are not the only ones spouting conspiracy theories. Dick Morris, the closest example of the world's oldest profession in politics we have, finds the NEP explanations highly improbable and accuses the media consortium of cooking the surveys to depress GOP turnout:

Exit polls are almost never wrong. They eliminate the two major potential fallacies in survey research by correctly separating actual voters from those who pretend they will cast ballots but never do and by substituting actual observation for guesswork in judging the relative turnout of different parts of the state.

They've been wrong three elections in a row now. Where has Dick Morris been?

But this Tuesday, the networks did get the exit polls wrong. Not just some of them. They got all of the Bush states wrong. So, according to ABC-TVs exit polls, for example, Kerry was slated to carry Florida, Ohio, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Iowa, all of which Bush carried. The only swing state the network had going to Bush was West Virginia, which the president won by 10 points.

To screw up one exit poll is unheard of. To miss six of them is incredible. It boggles the imagination how pollsters could be that incompetent and invites speculation that more than honest error was at play here.

Morris does have a point here. The NEP conducted exit polling on a state-by-state basis, and it does look like the only states that came in with wide inaccuracies were the so-called battleground states or states Bush was expected to win. At least, that's the way it appeared on Tuesday night as each network hesitated to put several key states into the red column for Bush. However, the results may have been skewed in the blue states as well, but with Kerry winning those as expected, it would make no difference in calling them during the coverage. Morris does not address that possibility.

Next to the forged documents that sent CBS on a jihad against Bushs National Guard service and the planned 60 Minutes ambush over the so-called missing explosives two days before the polls opened, the possibility of biased exit polling, deliberately manipulated to try to chill the Bush turnout, must be seriously considered.

At the very least, the exit pollsters should have to explain, in public, how they were so wrong. Since their polls, if biased or cooked, represented an attempt to use the public airwaves to reduce voter turnout, they should have to explain their errors in a very public and perhaps official forum.

This was no mere mistake. Exit polls cannot be as wrong across the board as they were on election night. I suspect foul play.

Morris beats this media conspiracy into the ground. No one doubts that a significant number of people at CBS conspired to stage forged and fraudulent documents to pervert the election, just as someone obviously went out of their way at NBC to excise a damning admission by John Kerry from a transcript of an interview with Tom Brokaw. ABC's political editor, Mark Halperin, told his staff to ease up on Kerry and put more heat on Bush. What Morris alleges is that there was an explicit conspiracy amongst all of these entities to misrepresent the exit polls, but for what advantage? Morris doesn't explain.

I strongly disagree with Morris on the penultimate point as well. Exit polls are not an official part of our electoral process; for that matter, neither are "calls" by broadcast networks. I have no idea what he means by "official forum", but the notion is ridiculous and somewhat chilling for both free speech and free-market operation. Unless Morris has probable cause for a RICO conspiracy to throw the election via bad exit polling (probable cause requires evidence, not conjecture), then calls for prosecution or government censure are inappropriate. The FCC and the FEC could, and should, ask the broadcasters to explain why they collude with each other on analysis instead of compete with each other. Before the NEP and VNS, we may have gotten conflicting information from each source, but at least it wasn't uniformly unreliable.

In other words, despite the rantings of conspiracy theorists on both sides, what we have here is another episode of incompetence in a process that never should be used for predictions on Election Day anyway. Perhaps the media will learn that lesson for 2006, but incompetence stretches far beyond the pollsters, and I doubt that the decisionmakers at the consortium are immune from its influence.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 5, 2004 1:18 AM

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» Captain Ed on Exit Polls from The Truth Laid Bear
Captain Ed has coverage of the post-mortem on Election Day exit polls: In other words, despite the rantings of conspiracy theorists on both sides, what we have here is another episode of incompetence in a process that never should be... [Read More]

Tracked on November 5, 2004 6:39 AM

» So what about those exit polls? from This isn’t writing, it’s typing.
What was it that skewed the exit polls so thoroughly as to predict a Kerry victory—even in states Bush ultimately won by decisive margins, such as Florida and Ohio? Michael Barone advances a provocative, though highly plausible, theory in U. S. News [Read More]

Tracked on November 6, 2004 12:51 PM

» Looking Ahead from Watcher of Weasels
John Hawkins does some pontificating about who we might see run in 2008...  he mentions Jeb Bush, but suspects it would never happen because the public would want to see a new last name in the White House by then. ... [Read More]

Tracked on November 6, 2004 10:09 PM

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