Exit zone.

Media criticism.
Nov. 6 2004 12:23 AM

Exit Zone

The official excuses for the bad exit poll numbers don't cut it.

(Continued from Page 1)

As for the Edison/Mitofsky concession that Kerry voters might have distorted exit polls in his favor with their eagerness to complete a post-ballot questionnaire, this generic excuse was also used in the 1996 Arizona Republican presidential primary. The final exit poll gave candidate Patrick J. Buchanan 31 percent of the vote, while the actual count gave him only 27. This 4 percentage point differential exceeded the poll's margin of error by 1 percentage point. Voter News Service Editorial Director Murray Edelman attributed the error to enthusiastic Buchanan voters in a Feb. 29, 1996, Washington Post story. "Buchanan's voters are much more fired up. They're more eager to talk about it, more behind what they just did," he said. In 2000, VNS determined that in Kentucky, Bush voters were more likely to complete the exit pollster's questionnaire, according to this CBS News post-mortem from 2000. Blaming anomalous exit-poll data on enthusiastic voters seems to be a standard industry cop-out and ex-post facto reasoning at its worst.

The CBS News post-mortem should be read by everybody who cares about election coverage. It admits that broadcasters have been remiss in not educating viewers and recommends fuller disclosure about how the process works, even suggesting that the networks explain why some election calls are not made, "so that the audience knows we are not consulting a crystal ball." But why stop there? Why not release the exit poll numbers to the public at the same time they go to the news media? The whole rationale for keeping the numbers secret in the first place was that they might deter voters from casting their ballots. But after the experience of 2004, nobody is going to believe that raw exit polls are any better at predicting elections than conventional political pollsters, some of whom called the presidential election right, and some of whom called it wrong.

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One conventional pollster, by the way, got the election wrong and right. John Zogby's final poll called the election for Bush. But then he switched to Kerry at 5 p.m. on Election Day. Is he blaming the exit polls, too?

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