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Exit Polls: Miss Them When They're Gone

Topics: 2010 , Edison Research , Exit Polls , Massachusetts

Last week's Senate election in Massachusetts gave those of us who follow and report on politics an experience analogous to the movie It's a Wonderful Life. We now know what life is like without exit polls.

Unfortunately, by the time it became obvious that Scott Brown had a real chance of upsetting Martha Coakley, the lead-time necessary to conduct a true exit poll had passed. As a result, we were left with a handful of post-election telephone surveys. While the high quality survey conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation helped fill the gap, we were also treated to a number of post election polls conducted by partisans seeking to put their own spin on the results.

The day after the election, I got an email from a former network political producer who thought now would be a good time to restate the case for exit polls:

The absence of good data to help understand what happened in Mass and why is glaring...it drives me nuts that the Networks get bashed by print media and the pundits for the Exits not being perfect for prediction but never get credit for the service they provide for interpreting the results.

Very true. Too many of us assume that exit polls exist for the sole purpose of "calling" election results hours before the polls close -- an ability that has long been more myth than reality -- while the real value of the enterprise is helping us understand, once all the votes have been counted, who voted and why. Yes, we have all picked at the problems of exit polling, but if anyone has discovered a better method to survey actual voters while also correcting for apparent sampling bias, I am not aware of it.

A marginally related point: The networks do a great public service when they deposit the raw, respondent-level data in academic archives like those at the Roper Center and the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR). These data allow scholars to conduct all sorts of analyses that are impossible using only the simple cross-tabluations posted on election night.

Unfortunately, the raw data release takes time due to the slow process of creating accurate documentation of the samples interviewed nationwide and in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. In the past, that process has taken many months (although the 2005 data release was expedited due to intense interest in the apparent exit poll miscues of 2004).   

Scholars are still waiting on the release of the 2008 election, and the delay has produced considerable back-channel grumbling, some of which has reached me via email. Why has the release been delayed so long? That I cannot say, but I did contact the folks who are responsible for preparing the data, and they assure me that it is coming soon. The creation of documentation, they tell me, is now virtually complete, but "the files and the documentation are in the process of being reviewed [by the media sponsors], and this process should take a few more weeks to a month."

 

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