Monday, November 03, 2008

Exit Polling, Reliability and Predicting a Winner

As american head to the polls to pick a new president, a though occurred to me today regarding the reliability of exit polling in this race in particuar, particularly as it applies to Democrats.

The fundamental concept of exit polling is that it is reliable since pollsters are asking voters to answer the questions immediately after exiting the polling place, with the notion that a) people will remember what they just did and b) there is little concern now about the impression one makes with one's voting choices.

But is that really the case now.

Consider this scenario: Voter A, a registered Democrat with strong views in support of the military goes to the polls and crosses party lines to vote for McCain. Now this person is stopped by the exit poll taker. One of the first questions asked is the voter's party affiliation. Next comes the question of who they voted for. Does this voter say "Obama" or "McCain?" If they say McCain, do they worry about the line-crossing issue or the race issue?

See for the past three weeks, the constant drum beat we have heard among the media elite is about the "historic election" where a black man could become president. Also for the past couple of weeks, the tracking polls have shown Obama to hold a lead between 6 and 11 points depending on the poll you consult. My problem is that I think that 6-11 points is probably closer to 3-7 points because of this racial fuzziness. Contrary to what you may think, many people are still "race conscious" and will want to respond favorably to Obama, even if they have no intention of actually voting for Obama, even if their vote against Obama has absolutely nothing to do with Obama's ethnicity.

Which leads us back to the fundamental question. Exit polls have, to a certain extent been somewhat unreliable in the past couple of election cycles, whether through methodology or the over-reliance on exit polls by the mainstream media. So given the racial factor, will exit polling be even more unreliable this time around?

We shall see.

Update 11/4/08 10:29 AM: James Joyner makes a couple of really good points as well, without the conspiracy overtones my thoughts have:
Bill McInturff, McCain’s pollster and my wife’s employer, makes the same point and adds additional points:
1. Historically, exit polls have tended to overstate the Democratic vote.

2. The exit polls are likely to overstate the Obama vote because Obama voters are more likely to participate in the exit poll.

3. The exit polls have tended to skew most Democratic in years where there is high turnout and high vote interest like in 1992 and 2004.

4. It is not just the national exit poll that skews Democratic, but each of the state exit polls also suffers from the same Democratic leanings.

5. The results of the exit polls are also influenced by the demographics of the voters who conduct the exit polls.
So, the results will skew Democratic and give very wrong impressions. In 2000 and 2004, they incorrectly pointed to Democratic wins. In 2008, they will likely incorrectly point to an Obama landslide — or at least exaggerate the margin of victory in states that barely swing Democrat.

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