Tuesday, November 4, 2008

News media using more caution analyzing exit polls

TV networks and news agencies were burned badly in 2000 when many called Florida - and by extension the U.S. presidential race - for Al Gore, and got it wrong.

This time around, they will be more cautious, especially when it comes to Florida and the use of exit polls, which have proved to be far from foolproof.

"Exit polling is a very valuable tool for understanding what people were thinking about as they voted," said Michael Oreskes, managing editor for U.S. news at The Associated Press. "I think as a tool to actually gauge how things are going to turn out, we're likely to be very cautious about it."

The AP is a major player in the election night showdown - it is the sole source of the vote count for the American media, dispatching an army of 4,600 stringers to call in local voting results from around the country.

Richard Bond, deputy campaign manager for George H.W. Bush's campaign in 1988 and head of the Republican National Committee during his 1992 re-election bid, said that, in addition to the 2000 fiasco, many exit polls proved to be off in 2004. They showed George W. Bush losing the battlegrounds of Ohio and Florida, which turned out not to be the case. "Exit polls have been too squirrelly," Bond said. "While they are entertaining, they provided more heart attacks than any other intelligence provided. People were really flipping out."

Oreskes said the AP will not release results of any exit polls until after the polls have closed. And he said it is just one factor the news agency will use in calling individual states for either candidate.

Those other tools include voter turnout, previous voting patterns, results available from precincts that have reported in including typically bellwether areas, and telephone polls of absentee or early voters. In the end, calling a state also depends on the expertise of state AP bureau chiefs and political analysts who know their territory and its history and trends.

The AP, along with ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News and NBC News, have tried to do a better job with exit polls in 2003 by forming a consortium to conduct the polls and collect vote results at a sample of precincts in each state. Called the National Election Pool, it contracted Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International to handle the work. Each news agency's own experts analyze the data and eventually call states based partly on it.

"That's a very, very carefully made decision," Oreskes said. "We don't just look at some numbers and call them."

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