The Exit Poll CharadeWhy Slate is publishing the exit poll numbersBy Jack ShaferUpdated Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004, at 10:56 AM PT
As this item posts, the first raw exit poll data are streaming from the National Election Pool consortium owned by the Associated Press and the five television networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN) to their news divisions and to the newsrooms of NEP subscribers—big city newspapers and other broadcasters.
These early exit poll numbers do not divine the name of the winner. Instead, regard these numbers as a sportswriter does the line scores from the fourth inning of a baseball game. The leading team might win the game, but then again it might not. But having the early data in front of him helps the sportswriter plot the story he thinks he'll need to write at game's end.
As you read this posting, the political reporters at the networks, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, Newsweek, and about two dozen other news outlets are cracking their knuckles over their keyboards, contemplating the story, while statisticians and political analysts at the networks prepare to run the numbers through their computer models to generate a prediction.
The paid users of exit poll data have signed a blood oath not to divulge it to unauthorized eyes, and the networks have promised not to call any states before their polls close. But the numbers always leak out to other journalists—such as the writers at Slate—and
starting at about 5 p.m. ET or so, the news anchors start giving clues about what they've learned from the exit poll results. As John Tierney writes in today's New York Times
, the result on television is sometimes like a "version of the Dance of the Seven Veils, in which anchors or correspondents will pretend not to know what's happening in a state but give enough clues for the discerning viewer. They might allude to the high spirits at one campaign headquarters, or start speculating about what effect the loss of this state would have on the other candidate."
In the 2003 gubernatorial election in California, the networks kept their solemn oath not to call the winner until polls closed at 11 p.m. ET. Just the same, CBS News' Dan Rather telegraphed his findings in this 6:30 p.m. ET broadcast.
With voting still under way in the California governor recall election, CBS News exit polls, for whatever, if anything, they may be worth, now indicate many voters made up their minds weeks ago. … If [Gov. Gray Davis] is recalled, there are widespread expectations—again, for whatever they may be worth—that Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger would replace Davis.
On CNBC, John Seigenthaler maintained a straight face in the 7 p.m. ET time slot as he divulged these exit poll results: "Nearly three-quarters of California voters, 73 percent, say they disapprove of [Gov. Gray Davis'] job performance." Need he have drawn a picture? Meanwhile, MSNBC and Fox indulged in similar mugging. Watch the airwaves for such giveaways this evening.
Slate believes its readers should know as much about the unfolding election as the anchors and other journalists, so given the proviso that the early numbers are no more conclusive than the midpoint score of a baseball game, we're publishing the exit poll numbers as we receive them. Some people say it's irresponsible to publish the numbers—or broadcast early projections of winners—because it may disturb voter turnout. As Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg put it in today's Times, he doesn't want to put the Web site "in the paternalistic position of deciding that our readers aren't mature enough to react in the proper way to truthful information we possess."
Watch this space. …Jack Shafer is Slate's editor at large.