Election Day filled with unexpected twists ended with a familiar
question: What went wrong with the network exit polls?
In two previous national elections, the exit polls had
behaved badly. Premature calls by the networks in Florida led
to a congressional investigation in 2000. Two years later, a computer
meltdown resulted in no release of data on Election Day.
On Tuesday, new problems surfaced: a 2 1/2-hour data blackout
and samples that at one point or another included too many women,
too few Westerners, not enough Republicans and a lead for Democratic
presidential nominee John F. Kerry in the national survey that
persisted until late in the evening.
In two instances on election night -- the results for
Virginia and South Carolina -- the networks held off projecting
a winner when voting ended because exit polls showed that the
races were too close to call, only to see President Bush win easily
in both states.
"The exit polls got it flat wrong," asserted Charles Gibson
yesterday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
That is wrong, countered Joe Lenski of Edison Media Research,
which conducted Tuesday's exit poll with Mitofsky International
for the National Election Pool, a consortium of the major television
networks and the Associated Press. "No wrong projections [of winners]
were made; the projections were spot on," he said. "The members
used this data with sophistication and understanding of what data
can and cannot be used for."
Election Day 2004 was a roller-coaster ride for the two
presidential candidates and for the political press corps. Successive
waves of the national exit poll in the afternoon and evening reported
that Kerry had a two- or three-percentage-point lead over Bush
nationally and in several key states, including Ohio.
Preliminary exit poll results had leaked throughout the
day and were posted on a number of Web sites, including the widely
viewed Drudge Report site, which added to the confusion and fanned
the media frenzy.
To compound the problem further, a server at Edison/Mitofsky
malfunctioned shortly before 11 p.m. The glitch prevented access
to any exit poll results until technicians got a backup system
operational at 1:33 a.m. yesterday.
The crash occurred barely minutes before the consortium
was to update its exit polling with the results of later interviewing
that found Bush with a one-point lead. Instead, journalists were
left relying on preliminary exit poll results released at 8:15
p.m., which still showed Kerry ahead by three percentage points.
It was only after the polls had closed in most states
and the vote count was well underway in the East that it became
clear that Bush was in a stronger position in several key battlegrounds,
including Ohio, than early exit polls suggested.
Some problems are inevitable. A total of 13,047 randomly
selected voters were interviewed Tuesday as they left their polling
places, and those results were fed into computers. The accumulated
results were reported several times over the course of Election
Results based on the first few rounds of interviewing
are usually only approximations of the final vote. Printouts warn
that estimates of each candidate's support are unreliable and
not for on-air use. Those estimates are untrustworthy because
people who vote earlier in the day tend to be different from those
who vote in the middle of the day or the evening. For instance,
the early national sample Tuesday that was 59 percent female probably
reflected that more women vote in the day than the evening.
That is why the early leaks anger Lenski. "The basic issue
here is the leaking of this information without any sophisticated
understanding or analysis, in a way that makes it look inaccurate,"
After the survey is completed and the
votes are counted, the exit poll results are adjusted to reflect
the actual vote, which in theory improves the accuracy of all
the exit poll results, including the breakdown of the vote by
age, gender and other characteristics.
Correction to This Article
The number of randomly selected voters who were interviewed Tuesday
for the National Election Pool's exit poll was incorrect in an
earlier version of this article. The correct number is 13,047.