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Early this evening, the major networks, as well as a host of websites across the political spectrum, will begin releasing exit polling data compiled by Edison Research, the exclusive source of this information for all media in the 2012 elections. When this occurs, it will be easy for those of us who live and breath politics to get excited and/or anxious, depending on what the initial exit polling reveals.

That said, as someone who has feared many an ulcer from past elections,I thought it might be helpful for those unfamiliar with exit polling to keep in mind a few things when the data begins to trickle out shortly after 5:00pm (ET):

1) Exit Polling Isn't Exact. As with any polling, exit polling is more art than science, and relies largely on generalized assumptions of the electorate based on subjective representative samples. In 2008, the exit polling was wildly off - often times in both directions. Initial exit polls had Barack Obama beating John McCain 52-44 in Florida, 52-48 in Missouri, and 52-48 in Iowa, for example. The final results in these states were somewhat accurate, not accurate, and wildly not accurate, respectively. Long story short: exit polling is a helpful hint at election results, but it does not equal election results.

2) There Are More Wild Cards Than Ever. In elections past, exit polling was fairly straightforward. Pollsters only had to consider a few variables. Nowaways, however, our elections (and electoral climate) are more volatile than ever. Early and absentee voting has forced pollsters to make assumptions about votes already cast. Rapidly shifting demographics have forced pollsters to make assumptions about who is voting. Extreme partisanship has forced pollsters to consider behavioral science when accounting for respondents' willingness (or lack therefor) to respond to exit polls. Pollsters nowadays even have to account for the time of day - who votes when. Elderly voters vote early, blue collar voters vote late. Consider this when looking at exit polling data measured, analyzed and released by 5:00pm - when polls in some states are open for a few more hours.

3) Demographics Matter. As we've learned all campaign, there are voters who personally like Barack Obama, yet will vote against him. There are voters who think Mitt Romney will do a better job fixing the economy, yet will vote against him. There are voters who make more than the magic $250,000 per year who count themselves among Barack Obama's strongest supporters. And there are Evangelical Christians, long the Republican Party's base, who will vote against Mitt Romney, based, ironically, on his religion. What's the point? Guessing the way people think isn't easy. Measuring who people are is bit a easier. When the exit polling data comes in tonight, look at two items first and foremost: gender compositions and racial breakdowns. If you see a 53/47 split along gender lines, Barack Obama is in good shape. If the percentage of voters who are white is at 74 or lower, Barack Obama is in good shape.

4) Don't Trust Anything Before 5:00PM. Every year since 2000, Drudge has released "exclusive" exit polling showing the Republican candidate way ahead of the Democratic candidate, usually late in the afternoon. In other words, late enough to be plausible, but too early to be legitimate (at least for those in the know). The political noise machine loves to think it has a scoop, so be prepared for a slew of right-leaning pundits claiming to have "firsthand", "internal", or "confidential" information claiming Mitt Romney is way up. I'd almost be willing to bet money that you can expect to see claims that Ohio is 51-49 Romney, particularly. And while I think our side is considerably more fact-based, be weary of anyone showing a massive Obama lead anytime before early evening.

In the end, as we all know, the only numbers that matter are the ones that come from the ballot box. So when you start seeing a flurry of numbers in a few hours, take my advice: relax, have a drink, and settle in - it's the results that matter.  

If anyone else has advice for handling the exit polls, I'd love to hear it!

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Comment Preferences

  •  Exit polls are evil (0+ / 0-)

       This election's been enough of an emotional rollercoaster. Exit polls induce more coronaries than a diet of triple cheeseburgers. I try to stay far, far away from their range.

    "Le ciel est bleu, l'enfer est rouge."

    by Buzzer on Tue Nov 06, 2012 at 08:46:24 AM PST

  •  Key stat (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    HudsonValleyMark

    % breakdown of those who made up mind late - they often give this tidbit out early

    Also in recent years networks have when polls close taken to saying "too early to call" to "to close to call". If you hear "too early" for states like PA, MI, WI and so on, figure they expect Obama to win, but not just saying so yet. If the margin will be within 6-7 points, they often stick with too early. It's hard to think Romney would win by that margin, so we'd be safe.

  •  yup (0+ / 0-)

    Don't even look at them, just watch the returns, compare how Obama is doing in a certain area to 2008, and you can get a feel pretty quickly as to how it will go.  For example, if Romney isn't outperforming McCain by about 5 % (roughly) in Ohio counties, then he probably won't win.

  •  expect tabulations to be updated (0+ / 0-)

    For states, if things go as in the past, we are likely to see initial exit poll tabulations for each state within minutes of poll closing. (I'm not counting the states in which they've reduced the exit polling to the extent that they will not release tabulations!) Those tabulations are likely to be revised fairly quickly based on better turnout estimates; then they will be revised again, perhaps a few times, based on projections of the final vote count.

    Exit poll mythology has it that the initial tabulations are somehow "raw" and that the updates somehow evince complicity in an election fraud conspiracy. The initial tabulations take pre-election expectations into account. The subsequent tabulations are updated because, frankly, it looks kind of silly to say that a candidate got 42% of the male vote and 46% of the female vote if s/he has 48% of the total vote.

    It's logically possible for exit poll projections to be more accurate than the vote count -- but, based on past performance, one shouldn't bet on it. For instance, the 2004 exit poll projection in New York (based on interviews only) put Kerry ahead by 31 points. Makes no sense.

    Election protection: there's an app for that! -- and a toll-free hotline: 866-OUR-VOTE
    Better Know Your Voting System with the Verifier!

    by HudsonValleyMark on Tue Nov 06, 2012 at 09:16:33 AM PST

  •  5. Expect early, then DIMINISHNG D Leads (0+ / 0-)

    Some states might have an initial high figure for Democrats because of early voting, and it will start to go down, but don't panic until it's over.

  •  They are Telephone Polling (0+ / 0-)

    The exit polls will account for the early vote by conducting extensive telephone interviews (both cell and landline). This is critical for Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, and Florida, as near majorities have already voted in these states. All of this phone polling will show a strong Obama lead.

    Please keep that in mind, too.

  •  The exit polls will be high in our favor and (0+ / 0-)

    although they might diminish some....they will be close to the high number Obama will finally be awarded.  The state polling data points to a landslide, and I have no doubt he will win with a mandate.

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