Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 17, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

EXIT POLL UPDATE....The exit polls this year indicated a big lead for John Kerry, but when the final vote tallies came in George Bush had earned a decisive victory. Should we be suspicious of this? Is it evidence of possible vote fraud?

I've already expressed my skepticism about this, but last week I posted a paper by Steven Freeman that laid out the exit poll case so that people could judge for themselves. Today, though, Ruy Teixeira throws yet more cold water on the fraud thesis by taking a look at raw exit poll results from past years. Here's the basic data for the popular vote:

Year

Exit Poll Results

Dem Lead

Dem Actual

1988

Dukakis: 50.3%
Bush: 49.7%

+0.6%

-7.7%

1992

Clinton: 46%
Bush: 33.2%

+12.8%

+5.6%

1996

Clinton: 52.2%
Dole: 37.5%

+14.7%

+8.5%

2000

Gore: 48.5%
Bush: 46.2%

+2.3%

+0.5%

As you can see, the raw exit poll results always overstate the Democratic vote, sometimes by as much as eight percentage points. So the fact that the raw results this year overstated Kerry's actual vote tally is hardly cause for alarm.

Of course, that's not the whole story. In a masterpiece of understatement, Ruy avers that "exit pollsters have never made much effort to publicly explain and document their methods," which is sort of like saying that the Mafia has a preference for holding staff meetings without the media present. As near as I can tell, it's not that they don't make much effort, it's that they actively refuse to explain even the rudiments of what they do, even when the exit polls become a legitimate news story in their own right.

Why does this matter? Because while the 1988-2000 results above are completely raw and unweighted, we don't know for sure if the 2004 results that Freeman lists in his paper are also completely raw. They may already be partially weighted, in which case we'd expect them to be more accurate than the stuff from past years. The exit pollsters who, you may recall, are contractors to large media organizations that normally value transparency and the public's right to know could easily explain this if they chose to. And they could just as easily show us proper comparisons with past results.

But if they did that, then there wouldn't be any conspiracy theories left for large media organizations to mock. We can't have that, can we?

UPDATE: It appears that Freeman's data is correct, but Mystery Pollster has a long post explaining that his conclusions probably aren't. And Mayflower Hill has a brief interview with exit pollster Warren Mitofsky, who says (a) he thinks the pro-Kerry bias was due to Kerry voters being more willing to fill out exit poll surveys, and (b) an analysis they've done shows that exit poll deviations weren't any different in precincts with different kinds of voting machines, which means that electronic fraud is very unlikely as an explanation for anything.

But I have to love this:

[Mitofsky] is reluctant to release anything prematurely that could be misinterpreted by the talking heads who showed on election day they aren't capable of analyzing basic raw polling data because of all the controversy it might cause. As he told me, "If you think I've got headaches now [from explaining data I didn't give out], imagine what that would do to me. I don't need that." He added, though, that "At some point it would be appropriate to release a public report."

Unbelievable. The huddled masses are just too ignorant to possibly understand this stuff. Question: what would be the media's reaction to, say, NASA, if that were the line they took after the Columbia disaster?

Kevin Drum 5:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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