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Exit The Exit Poll Master

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Warren Mitofsky was not a household name by any standard but almost every American is familiar with his pioneering work that has helped us all better understand how our democracy functions. What George Gallup was to public opinion polls, Mitofsky was to election exit polling and his passing – he died of a heart aneurysm last Friday at age 71 – leaves a large void in an area of expertise few understand well. From the Associated Press:
Mitofsky developed the election projection and analysis system used by CBS News and later by a consortium of news organizations. He first conducted an exit poll in 1967 in a Kentucky governor's election for CBS News. He conducted the first national exit poll in 1972 and covered nearly 3,000 electoral contests in all.

"It's because of Warren Mitofsky that America and the world has become accustomed to learning who won an election quickly and reliably, and what the election meant to the voters themselves," said Kathleen Frankovic, director of surveys at CBS News. "Without him, we might still be guessing why elections turn out the way they do."

Mitofsky was executive director of CBS News election and survey unit from 1967 until 1990. In 1976 he and editors at The New York Times established a polling collaboration that became a model for rival partnerships.

Exit polling has come under a great deal of scrutiny in recent years (as has regular opinion polling), and that's easy to understand in the wake of the past two presidential elections, particularly a spectacular meltdown in 2000. That was the year, of course, that glitches in the system caused broadcast networks and other news outlets to call the state of Florida first for Al Gore, then for George W. Bush, then pull their predictions altogether. Those problems and the eventual recount spectacle that followed, have led to the rise of conspiracy theories and accusations that raged through the 2004 election and even today.

All the embarrassment suffered by the major media has been the direct result of human error though, not some flaw or hidden motive of the methods themselves. In fact, every two years – and especially in presidential elections – we learn a great deal about who voted, why they voted as they did and what the primary motivators were for the electorate. It's not the be-all, end-all but it's valuable information – to dissect elections if not predict their outcomes on election day.

I have been a longtime critic of exit polling for one reason only – the numbers get out long before they mean anything. For anyone in the media, Election Day is one of the toughest to get through. There's little to do but sit around, swap phone calls with "those in the know" and look for clues as to how the evening will turn out. As a result, early exit polls are whispered around the industry and, in the Internet era, inevitably end up being posted all over the place.

The problem is that many of these numbers come from the "early waves" of results. Basically, they're providing a snapshot of some early voting in some states. They can swing wildly from one candidate to another and are really pretty meaningless. And there's a common misperception that states are called based on exit polling alone. In competitive states, the results are looked at alongside of the real results as they start rolling in and calls are made when everyone is comfortable with the data. But what most people see is mere smoke and mirrors.

Overall, the media has an excellent record of calling these races but I fear major mistakes like Florida in 2000 obscure the real value of what Mitofsky was so instrumental in building – a system that adds to our understanding of the American electorate. It's what we learn from exit polls in the days and weeks following an election that is so valuable. And it's just one reason we should always remember Warren Mitofsky and what he added to our understanding of the country.

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