It's no wonder exit polls get so much attention -- they come at a time when a total information vacuum coincides with maximum appetite for information. People are voting, the election is about to be a foregone conclusion, yet nothing is happening, and those of us who have spent months or years anticipating this moment can do nothing but wait in a state of tortured anticipation.
But in seizing on exit polls to sate our desperate curiosity about who has won the election, we're using them for exactly what they're not supposed to tell us. "The exit poll is ultimately designed to provide answers about who voted and why, not to call the election," notes Mark Blumenthal, a former Democratic campaign pollster who's now the senior polling editor at the Huffington Post, and who spent nearly a year puzzling over and blogging about the mystery of the flawed Kerry exits post-2004.
In seizing on exit polls to sate our desperate curiosity about who has won the election, we're using them for exactly what they're not supposed to tell us.
Taken as such, exit polls are an incredibly rich trove of data for political analysts. In the case of Wisconsin, for example, they tell us that men preferred Walker by nearly 20 percentage points, while women gave Barrett a 5-point edge; that despite unions' institutional antagonism toward Walker he still carried nearly 40 percent of voters in union households; and that the same electorate that voted to retain Walker would have given the state's electoral votes to President Obama. Over the course of the GOP primary season, exit polls have shed light on which Republican voters were holding out on Mitt Romney -- the lower-income, less educated, tea party-supporting voters who preferred Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Those are fascinating demographic insights, and their significance is enhanced by the fact that they come from an actual electorate that's gone out and voted, not a telephone-based guesstimate of who's going to vote. (In less developed countries, exit polls can also serve as a valuable check on election fraud.)
It's worth a refresher in how the exit poll -- there's actually only one, shared among all the news organizations -- works. A consortium of the five news networks plus the Associated Press commissions it from a firm called Edison Research, then sells a subset of the data to other news organizations. Edison carefully, scientifically chooses a set of precincts in geographically representative locations, then stations workers there to ask people who they voted for; the workers also note the roughly observable demographic characteristics (gender, age and race) of voters who don't answer the survey.
The networks get the raw data throughout the day, and though there's supposed to be an embargo until the polls close, the exits invariably leak. At one time, this was no big deal -- a rumor that would get around among political types but wouldn't reach the broader public. Blumenthal remembers getting calls every Election Day from reporters eager to gossip about this juicy inside information. But with the advent of the Internet, the early data can get out much more widely, causing a sensation. In 2004, some Democrats believed the early exits that showed them winning discouraged some Kerry voters from going to the polls because they thought it wasn't necessary.