Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 7, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

EXIT POLLS....Should early exit poll results be widely released on election day? This year's early results seemed to be more than normally off kilter, and that's rekindled debates over whether it's "responsible" for blogs and other web publications to make early results available to their readers. Here are five reasons why I think releasing early exit poll data is OK:

  1. The media does have access to exit poll information throughout the day, and it affects their coverage. It strikes me as both dishonest and unfair for media coverage to be biased by information they are deliberately withholding from their readers and viewers. Far better for them to explain up front the background data that's affecting their coverage and their commentary.

  2. There is no evidence that releasing early exit polls has any systematic effect on people's voting behavior. It might affect voting behavior, but I've never seen any actual confirmation of it.

  3. In lieu of evidence, there are two basic theories of exit poll behavior. Theory 1 suggests that if early exit polls favor Candidate A, then A's supporters are inspired and B's supporters are depressed. Thus, A's supporters dance off to the polls while B's sit at home and mope. However, Theory 2 is equally plausible and suggests exactly the opposite: A's supporters get smug and figure their vote isn't needed, while B's supporters panic and head off to the polls in droves.

    Thus, since there seems to be no evidence one way or the other, and both of these theories are equally plausible, all we can say is that releasing early exit polls might affect voting behavior one way or the other, but we don't know in which direction, by how much, or whether it actually happens at all. Isn't that a rather thin basis on which to rail against the evils of releasing early exit poll returns?

  4. In any case, the media do things all the time that affect voting behavior. It's practically their job. An especially apposite example is the drumbeat of headlines trumpeting the results of ordinary polls in the weeks leading up to the election. This almost certainly affects voting behavior, but nobody suggests it should be banned. Why are early exit poll results any different?

  5. Realistically, early exit polls are going to get leaked whether we like it or not. Given that that's the case, isn't the real problem that nobody knows where the early results on blogs and other websites come from? Or whether they're real?

    In fact, since there's really no way of turning back this tide, wouldn't we all be better off if responsible sites like CNN simply posted the official early results, complete with caveats, margins of error, and commentary from statisticians who can tell us exactly how much faith to put in them? At the very least that would ensure that we were getting the real deal, not some weird ginned up rumors, and it would come with a dash of cold water to boot.

Now, having said all this, there's still the question of whether this year's exit polls were wildly off the mark. If they were, then of course they need to be fixed. If they can't be fixed, they'll go away because nobody will be willing to pay for them anymore.

However, exit polls have a long history of sterling accuracy, and presumably this year's problems can be addressed. So I'll repeat the proposal I made a few days ago: early exit poll results should be available to people who actively want to see them. That means that network news shows should avoid forcing them onto everyone who turns on a TV during the day, but should make them available on the web to anyone who wants to see them.

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Kevin Drum 4:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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