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.