At long last, those Delphic numbers get the scrutiny they deserve.

Media criticism.
Nov. 3 2004 7:31 PM

Demystifying the Exit Polls

At long last, those Delphic numbers get the scrutiny they deserve.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Michael Kinsley's decade-old exit-poll obsession became mine during the 2000 campaign.

Early in the '90s, Kinsley started attacking the TV networks for promising to do one thing with their Election Day findings while doing another. The networks, accused of suppressing voter turnout by projecting election winners while voting was still underway, promised to conceal what they knew about the probable winners most precincts were closed.

Advertisement

This promise proved impossible to keep. Journalists live to blab all about a story before anybody else can, so during each election reporters who gain access to confidential Election Day data—such as exit polls—traditionally leak the info like mad, phoning and e-mailing it to their friends and colleagues who in turn distribute it to their friends and colleagues.

Although TV producers gag their reporters, barring them from mentioning anything too specific from the exit polls until their bosses sound the all clear, correspondents have found a variety of ways to telegraph the forbidden knowledge to their audiences. "If current trends continue, it could be a very happy night for Sen. Longhorn in his quest for the presidency," they might say, or, "Our exit-poll data shows that voters are very, very unhappy with the incumbent's performance over the past four years"—as if neither comment gives away the identity of the presumed victor.

It was Jacob Weisberg's inspiration to make overt what the networks made covert by publishing in Slate the exit-poll data as we received it during the 2000 primaries, which I did in my "Press Box" column. Publishing the exit-poll numbers may look like a college prank, but our intent was loftier. We wanted to expose the hypocrisy of networks that simultaneously embargoed the exit-poll data and broadcast its essence. Slate believed that readers should be trusted with the secrets of the journalistic temple, especially if newscasters were going to pantomime from them so cavalierly.

The trend Slate started picked up steam in 2002, and this year various Web sites (drudgereport.com, wonkette.com, mydd.com, nationalreview.com, for example) posted exit-poll numbers during the primaries and again on the day of the general election. Yesterday, Slate published three exit-poll installments, all of which flattered Kerry's prospects. (In midafternoon, we posted and then unposted almost immediately a set of numbers after we had doubts about their provenance.)

If you were smart enough to watch the TV coverage yesterday afternoon and early evening with Slate'sleaked exit polls as your cheat sheet, you weren't surprised to hear the anchors and commentators hint at a Kerry victory. As Alessandra Stanley writes in today's New York Times, the pro-Bush talking heads at Fox News Channel looked "stunned and somber as early voter surveys showed Mr. Kerry doing better than expected." Later, as the actual vote totals mounted in Bush's favor, toppling the raw exit-poll numbers, the Foxes began to glow.

In the 8 p.m. hour, when reporter Lisa Myers appeared on MSNBC's Hardball, she did her best given the limitations imposed by exit-poll omerta to explain that the Bush campaign thought the exit-poll results, which we now know were inflating the TV media's Kerry bubble, were flawed. From Myers' sharp report:

The Bush campaign has been laying the actual votes that have been coming in from the states against the exit-poll data, and they find that the exit-poll data is significantly underrepresenting the Republican vote. They specifically point to states like Virginia, South Carolina, and Florida.

They say, in each case, the actual vote patterns show a larger Republican vote than is represented in the exit-poll data. The campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, was particularly excited about some the data that they were seeing in Florida. ...

Why allow Myers to say "exit-poll data is significantly underrepresenting the Republican vote" but not let her speak the less cryptic truth that "the 4:15 p.m. exit-poll numbers from Florida show Kerry winning 51-49, a number the Bush campaign refutes"? This only begins to give you an idea of how arbitrary and silly the networks' rules are.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories on the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 11:40 AM The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Right of Free Speech
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 22 2014 6:00 AM Why It’s OK to Ask People What They Do David Plotz talks to two junior staffers about the lessons of Working.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 21 2014 12:05 PM Same-Sex Couples at Home With Themselves in 1980s America
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 4:14 PM Planet Money Uncovers One Surprising Reason the Internet Is Sexist
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.