The Problem With Exit Polls

Maybe somebody can answer this question for me: All of us are bombarded with exit polls, and all of us know that they can be ...
by | April 25, 2008
 

Exit_polls_2 Maybe somebody can answer this question for me: All of us are bombarded with exit polls, and all of us know that they can be wrong about final results -- famously wrong, as with John Kerry in 2004, but also in quite a few other cases since then. We know this because it's possible to lay the official tally against the poll and see that they don't match.

Why, then, do we take it as absolute truth when an exit poll proclaims that Hillary Clinton got 60 percent of the vote among female Catholics, or that English majors went for Barack Obama 4-1? These are interesting numbers, but they're almost always unverifiable. The only way you can check on them is to run a competing poll at the same time among a similar group, and that's rarely done any more. Who knows what the real numbers might be?

The bottom line is that we're suspicious of exit polls -- properly so -- where their accuracy can be tested, and utterly gullible when it's impossible to know whether they are right or wrong.

I realize that there's a strong constituency that lives off these polls -- TV networks, bloggers, consultants, political scientists - but I also think that we are making bold assumptions that may or may not have much in common with reality. 

Maybe English majors actually love John McCain. I doubt that, but I also doubt that an exit poll is the  best way to find out.

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