The Pros and Cons of Relying on Exit Polling in Elections

Date: February 9, 2012 | Shawn Herbig | News | Comments Off on The Pros and Cons of Relying on Exit Polling in Elections

We’ve all been there…sitting on the edge of our seat after dinner on election day, especially during Presidential elections. We scan from channel to channel, finding our favorite format for the information the media is releasing moment by moment.

At that point what we’re absorbing from the talking heads are the results of exit polling, which is exactly as its name implies; in the United States, companies (mostly media-based) place representatives near the exit doors of polling locations all around the country, who ask people directly who they just voted for.

The answers they receive are calculated and fed to the live broadcasts, to inform viewers how races are looking. They provide a constant flow of “news” and gives the powers that be a couple of hours head start for planning and strategy. And really, they’re fun to do, tend to be pretty close, and keep people riveted.

Exit polling can be a really good source of information if it is done correctly, and most news outlets do have the intention and resources to do it correctly. It gives us a pulse of what’s going on in the election and a good directional indication of who’s winning. But they’re not something to rely on for any significant purposes.

Exit polls are likely to be accurate when there is a clear leader at the outset of an election. Because these polls are not necessarily scientific, there can be quite a bit of bias involved.

On the flip side, exit polls are often less accurate and less predictive in very close races because the margin of error within the poll itself could intersect with the actual point difference between the candidates themselves. They can also be useful in detecting fraud because if an exit poll greatly conflicts with actual results, it can spur on an investigation to find out why those differences might exist.

Media has also had to be careful when reporting exit polling results. In the Presidential election in 1980, a major network reported that Ronald Reagan was going to win the election based on exit polls on the East coast, but it was three hours earlier on the West coast, and there was speculation that the “definitive” reporting of the exit polls kept a number of voters away from the polls because they figured the election was in the bag.

So exit polling can add to the election experience, make it exciting, and help detect fraud, but it is not a solid, scientific basket to place your electoral eggs in because the real count happens in the end anyway. Just give it a couple hours.

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“DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” – A case study in trusting the untrustworthy

Date: June 1, 2011 | Shawn Herbig | News | Comments Off on “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” – A case study in trusting the untrustworthy

Last week, I posted a commentary on the dangers of trusting polls and research derived from samples of convenience.  In this, the infamous 1948 Dewey-Truman election was referenced, in which the Chicago Tribune headlined that New York Governor and Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey defeated incumbent President Harry S. Truman.  The headlined letters were simple, and they were big:  “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”

Now, we all know that President Dewey went on to accomplish great and terrible things during his reign as commander and chief of the United States of America.  During his term, he helped establish NATO, fought the communist accusations and Red Scare of Senator McCarthy, sent troops to help with the Korean War, fired beloved war hero General MacArthur, and renovated the White House, thus ending his term with a dismal 22 percent approval rating.  Yes, President Dewey was indeed a controversial, both beloved and hated, president.  He is the talk of history classrooms throughout the nation!

Pardon the sarcasm.  In fact, Dewey never won the election.  Despite the Tribune’s headlines, Truman went on to win the electoral vote 303-189, and democrats regained the House and Senate.  After I posted this reference in last week’s post, I slowly began to realize, with the help of a fellow colleague, that perhaps not everyone remembers or knows about this infamous blunder.  And lest we forget, as history is forgotten, so it repeats itself.  So I am doing my part to help such disasters (though comedic as they are) from repeating themselves.

Some have claimed that this blunder was a result of conservative bias within the Tribune, but what underlay this was more so trusting inaccurate exit polling and data sources.  Such controversies have occurred since (namely the Bush-Gore election of 2000), but whereas the media were blame for lax voting in these instances, this was a product of trusting untrustworthy data.

A cautionary tale, to be sure, and one we can still learn from.  I can assure you that newspaper editors joke about this incident to others, but deep inside under locked doors they fear that their own paper may fall victim to such missteps.  Organizations and businesses should take heed as well, as trusting data that is not gathered accurately can lead to decisions that are not in the best interest of your organizations.

And for posterity’s sake, let us once again be reminded of this infamous photograph (Truman taunting the media the day after his victory as he boards a train in St. Louis). 

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