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Why Exit Polls Face Extinction
Political Junkie

By Richard Morin
Washington Post Polling Director
Monday, March 6, 2000

Are we nearing the exit of exit polling from the political scene? I say yes. Exit polling, at least as we know it, is all but dead, terminally wounded by a handful of renegade news organizations and self-aggrandizing Net journalists who have gleefully reported the early results of exit polling even before the polls close. It's only a matter of time before Congress, acting on an agreement struck with the networks in the mid-1980s not to release exit poll data until the polls close, closes down exit poll operations, finally and for good. Rest in peace.

Perhaps I exaggerate. Only because we love exit polls, the single best window we have on electoral behavior. But even their immense value to journalists and political scientists may not rescue them from the current lunacy—a frenzy of bad behavior fed by the worst instincts of the media and the Internet culture.

Slate, the Web magazine, started the trend by posting exit poll results based on early voting in New Hampshire long before the polls closed, then followed up with early exit poll results in South Carolina and Michigan. The perp was Jack Shafer, who claimed that the networks' promise to keep early exit poll numbers out of the public eye "places a terrible burden on reporters, who are paid to disseminate information and are rotten at keeping secrets." (I hope future Deep Throats don't read Shafer.) Shafer got his numbers via leaks from reporters and the campaigns. He sometimes posted the wrong numbers.

His joy ride ended last Tuesday, primary day in Virginia, North Dakota and Washington state. But let Shafer tell the story:

"It's midafternoon and I've got the exit poll numbers from today's Virginia primary," Shafer wrote in his Slate column. "I'd love to publish them, just as I have for the last three presidential primaries. But I can't. The lawyers from the Voter News Service—the ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, Fox News, CNN and the Associated Press media consortium that produces the exit polls—have threatened to sue Slate if we continue to do so."

In fact, VNS reportedly had sent two letters to Slate, calling the postings an unauthorized use of VNS material. Bill Headline, the executive director of VNS, would not say what actions, if any, his organization has taken against Slate or against Shafer. "I cannot comment on that," though he did note in response to a question that the exit poll results are protected by copyright laws.

VNS is not blameless. The television networks routinely bend—if not break—their own agreement with Congress not to disclose the results. In fact, some of the most hilarious moments on network television occur on election nights in the hour before poll closing, when overpaid anchors find new and creative ways to hint at the outcome they know.

Sometimes they don't even hint. Consider the comments by ABC's Peter Jennings, even as voters streamed to the polls in Michigan:

"At the time we are writing this, we are seeing the first wave of exit polls from the Michigan Republican primary," he wrote in a preview of the evening news that was posted on the ABC Web site. "The exit polls are one of the most fascinating tools we have to understand the electorate, and while we don't rely on them to project winners and losers, at this time of the day they are a very good indication of who is doing what to whom. Right now, John McCain and George W. Bush are statistically dead even."

Excuse me, but what's the difference between Peter's ramble and Shafer's posting, which read in full: "John McCain 48 percent; George W. Bush 46 percent"? "I don't want to comment on what one of ABC's people did," says Headline, who later noted the "inherent tension" between the news gathering and reporting side of network news operations.

There are three ways to deal directly with the problem, and all are problematic. The first is to lock up the poll results until the polls close and not make the results available to anyone. No early peeking, no characterizations, no hints about upsets. Since most poll closings fall after the evening news hour, that's a non-starter with the networks. And if election nights in newsrooms are crazed now, imagine what they would be like when that exit poll bomb explodes a second after poll closing.

Alternately, VNS could work to persuade Congress to give them a pass on that pre-election gag rule and let everybody release everything as soon as it's available. They can cite to Congress the research that suggests releasing early poll results has little, if any, effect on voter turnout. Since Congress has little interest in cutting the media any deals on anything, and because members are terrified that early release will depress turnout, that probably isn't going to work.

VNS could more strictly police users to prevent leaks. There are First Amendment problems, but this might work—if the networks seek additional penalties from Congress for individuals or Web sites displaying early exit poll results. The problem is that the Internet is this millennium's version of the Wild West. It would be virtually impossible to crack down on violators or plug all the leaks—particularly since we in the media are among the biggest leakers.

"If you guys are so ticked about this, then don't tell me," says Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, which gleefully posted Virginia early exit poll results at 3 p.m. on election day and then called reporters, including this writer, to publicize the coup. "Have a gag order. You'll never be able to do that. In the age of the Internet, three networks and two newspapers no longer are controlling the news and keeping things from getting out."

Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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