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!