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Let's Give 'Em Nothing To Talk About

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It's finally here -- Election Day! And you know what that means right? Well, for the most part, it means a day of sitting around twiddling thumbs if you're a political junkie or involved in covering the results in any way. Of course our attentions will turn toward stories that pop up here or there – tales of voting problems, speculation about turnout in key places and what that might mean, even the weather will get a turn in the pundit spotlight before the day is out.

It's a day to talk – and talk, and talk and talk – about pretty much nothing at all. This is why there is so much angst about the exit polls this year, or more precisely, about the lack of them. We looked into the role exit polls play in election night "calls" yesterday and noted this year's twist – the "quarantine room." Unlike years past when early exit poll numbers began circulating around news rooms, this year all the data will be locked up until 5:00pm on the east coast.

Why is this being done? Well, simply put, it's almost irresponsible to let them get out any earlier in today's media landscape. In the past, exit polls were the currency used by the journalistic and political community on Election Day, used to curry favor or repay old friends. Reporters, consultants and even candidates hit to phones all afternoon in search of the latest numbers.

For the most part, this chattering was fairly harmless because it was confined to a limited group of folks directly involved in the process. Information moved through phone lines from person to person and those involved knew enough to take the numbers they heard with the proper level of skepticism. And nobody in the press was broadcasting them in any way.

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That dynamic has exploded in the past few election cycles, however, making it more important than ever to clamp down on the exit poll data that flows throughout the day. When early numbers started showing up on the Internet and being talked about on talk radio programs, the access was universal – everyone suddenly had access to the numbers. The problem is, unlike the politicians and media types, not everyone understands what the numbers are really saying.

Exit polls are just surveys, after all, not voting totals. Mystery Pollster Mark Blumenthal pounds that point home again today in a great post on the topic. Early numbers in particular are apt to be inaccurate for a whole host of reasons – voting patterns, flawed sampling, improper weighting, etc. Yet those are the numbers which tend to pop up on blogs with no caveats or explanations. Even if explanations are given in big red letters, the numbers speak louder. The thinking goes something like this: These numbers are what the networks use to call races, so if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me.

The problem, of course, is that Election Night projections are not made based on the numbers people see at 2:00 in the afternoon (see here for a more detailed explanation on how the calls are made). But the damage is already done, the exit polls are out there. What is damaging is when actual results differ from those exit poll numbers in crucial elections.

In the 2004 presidential election, leaked exit polls strongly suggested that John Kerry was poised to grab the presidency because they showed him ahead in key states like Florida and Ohio. In earlier cycles, that information would certainly have impacted those involved to some extent including journalists. We likely would have heard undertones in the afternoon coverage that this "could shape up as a big day" for Kerry, but the actual numbers would not have gotten wide circulation.

In 2004, the numbers were all over the blogs and led to confusion and lots of rhetoric in the following days. Some on the left have used those early exit poll indicators as proof that the election was somehow stolen from Kerry. Some on the right point to them as evidence that the media was tilting to playing field in favor of the Democrat all along. Neither has much basis in fact, but it's not doing anything for the overall credibility of the media – not to mention the political system.

Over at National Review's Media Blog, Kathyrn Jean Lopez argues that the data should be made public:

Is there any more classic example of MSM obnoxious elitism than their lock-and-keyism about exit polls? If exit polls exist, and the media have access, everyone who cares to should know the score — or so has always been my attitude.
Yes, exit polls do exist but, this year at least, the media isn't even getting access to them until late in the day. I strongly suspect "everyone who cares" will be seeing them not too long after that. But remember, they don't tell the "score" because they aren't real votes. The truth is that exit polls are far more valuable as a tool to help us understand why voters voted they way they did in individual elections than they are in helping call the outcome of elections. It would be a shame to someday lose them because we can't wait for the votes to actually be counted.
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