Over the next 15 months, the news organization and its polling partners will use the money to test online survey methods during real campaigns, from the 2015 Kentucky governor's race through next year's presidential elections. By the time it closes the books on the 2016 elections, AP hopes to have identified survey methods that it can recommend to the NEP, which includes the main broadcast and cable news networks, for use in the official exit poll in future elections.
The exit poll's main challenge arises when voters avoid the traditional exit and don't actually go to the polls on Election Day. (Instead, rising numbers vote by mail or cast a ballot in person during an early voting period.) The NEP has to supplement its traditional interviews outside voter precincts with telephone polling to reach them, and phone polling is getting both more difficult and more expensive. Regulations governing calls to cell phones have driven up pollsters' costs, and nosediving response rates to phone surveys—often less than one-in-10 people called participate in a survey—threaten the accuracy of the surveys at the same time by making it less likely to contact a truly random sample of people.
"In the last decade or so, people have really changed the way they vote," said David Pace, AP's Washington news editor. "It used to be everybody voted in their neighborhood precinct and exit polls worked great. "¦ But one-third of voters voted absentee in 2012, totally out of the reach of exit pollsters" standing outside precincts. "That's a trend that's been growing for eight-to-10 years," Pace continued.
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That led the NEP to conduct supplementary phone polls in 35 states in 2012, Pace said. But that raises the cost issue of phones.
"It's really not financially sustainable," said Pace. "So we're looking ahead and experimenting because, if this trend keeps going, it's going to make it harder and harder and more and more expensive to adapt exit polls to the current environment."
That's where relatively cheap but less proven online polling comes in. A pollster can't contact a random sample of Internet users the same way they can approach random voters outside a precinct or dial random telephone numbers. But researchers are investigating different ways to approximate the voting population online, where asking them questions costs a fraction of conducting a phone poll.
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One of AP's polling partners, GfK, has already been running experiments comparing online polling with the regular exit polls. In 2014, the firm blended results from different online panels (one built to look like a representative sample of the population and one in which respondents simply volunteered to participate) to project the results of Senate and gubernatorial races in Georgia and Illinois.