In defense of exit polls.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 4 2004 11:07 AM

In Defense of Exit Polls

You just don't know how to use them.

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As it happens, Kerry did carry Pennsylvania. In Ohio he lost by two points instead of winning by one point. * Far from being wildly off the mark, that variance is about par for the course, or even under par, for a mid-afternoon reading of an exit poll. Indeed, Tuesday's exit-poll numbers were no more off the mark than were those of four, eight, or 12 years ago.

That's why the people who bought and paid for this intelligence kept it to themselves. Bill Wheatley, an NBC executive who understands these things, told the New York Times Wednesday that early afternoon numbers from an exit poll are "junk." Slate and the other Web sites on which these numbers appeared Tuesday afternoon have every right in the world to get them however they can and publish them. But it's hard to pin the blame for the dissemination of these numbers on those who tried so hard to keep them secret.

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In one respect the networks do share some guilt. On their own Web sites, as soon as the polls closed, several of them posted the entire questionnaire from the exit poll—including percentages on the horse-race. They did this without regard to whether a winner had been called. Some bloggers concluded that those numbers had the imprimatur of the network experts and passed on to the entire Internet apparent conclusions that the networks had in fact wisely declined to endorse on the air.

But the real problem is not that the exit polls were wrong. They were about as accurate as they usually are. The problem was that in the age of the Internet the exit polls were being seen by thousands of people who didn't know how to read them. Like any sophisticated weapon, they are dangerous in the hands of the untrained.

Correction, Nov. 4, 2004: This article originally said that Kerry lost Florida by two points. In fact, Kerry lost Florida by five points. Return to the corrected sentence.

Martin Plissner is former executive political director of CBS News and the author of The Control Room—How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections.