Many commentators have recently sought for political or professional purposes to discredit exit polls. In the past few elections exit polls have received unwarranted bad publicity. This is unfortunate because exit polls since the late 1960s have overall been extremely reliable and served us well, providing us with extensive information on how and why Americans vote as they do. No college class on electoral behavior could be taught without the valuable information provided by exit poll data.
In 2000, exit polls were attacked because results indicated that Gore had defeated Bush in Florida by more than seven percentage points. Yet, though Bush won the state, even the president’s supporters generally acknowledge that a plurality of Florida’s voters intended to vote for Gore. “Anomalies” such as flawed ballots and counting processes disproportionately disqualified Gore votes.
In 2002, exit poll results were never reported or released at all because the pollsters “lost all confidence in the polls,” perhaps due in part to discrepancies with official counts in a slew of surprising Republican victories that enabled the GOP to gain control of the Senate.
In 2004 exit polls were especially attacked because the Presidential election exit poll results differed from “actual” results like literally never before. In Ohio, a state that would have given Kerry the White House, exit poll results deviated from official results by eleven percentage points, that is to say, exit poll data indicates that Bush did not win by 120,000 votes, but rather lost by 500,000.
And even while the polls are being disparaged here, they are used throughout the world to verify the integrity of the count. In democracies with hand-counted paper ballots such as Germany and the United Kingdom, exit polls predict the outcome of national elections with extreme accuracy. Around the world, exit polls have been used to verify the integrity of elections, and discrepancies between exit polls and the official vote count have been used to successfully overturn election results in Peru, Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine. At the same time that Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie was saying, "I would encourage the media to abandon exit surveys on Election Day,” the administration was paying for exit polls in the Ukraine to help ensure that any fraud committed would be exposed.
Foreign nations aside, pollsters and political scientists who have spent their career analyzing election results are highly resistant to any suggestion that the official tally is questionable. The official count is their North Star, without which their analyses are lost. In fact, when they are “wrong,” they try to “correct” their data and analysis so as to conform to the official numbers. Moreover, in today’s political climate, any suggestion of the possibility of a corrupted count will be attacked as a partisan bias, and if exit pollsters are perceived as partisan, they will never see another media contract.