TV News Passes Exit-Polling Test

Nov 13, 2006  •  Post A Comment

For television news, it was the election that didn’t go wrong.

The National Election Pool, created by broadcast and cable networks in 2003 to replace the creaky old system of collecting and analyzing exit-poll information, last week avoided the meltdowns that plagued TV news in the 2000 election and in the 2004 vote, when the data incorrectly indicated John Kerry would win the White House.

The NEP’s collection and crunching of numbers went off without a hitch in the Nov. 7 election. And the 5 p.m. East Coast quarantine on NEP’s information held up, with no mass leaks of the exit-poll data, said the TV news people who sit on the group’s governing committee.

But no one is ready to say whether the early exit-poll information will ultimately prove to be acceptably close to the actual results. TV news executives, who have been hauled before Congress to explain past exit-polling misfires, don’t want a return appearance on the Hill. The NEP has begun its routine postmortem process, but won’t know for a few weeks how close to the mark last week’s data was.

“The data isn’t back yet. We need to look at every single precinct result that had an exit poll,” NBC Elections Director Sheldon Gawiser said Thursday after the first of what will be a series of NEP board conference calls. “We need to get the questionnaires back from the interviewers and find out who had trouble with the election officials and who was kept out of the area, where it was raining … those kind of things. And then we’ll do our full analysis. It will take a few weeks.”

The juggernaut that delivered the Democrats both houses of Congress made television news executives nervous because early exit-poll data was so heavily tilted toward the party.

Upon being briefed for the first time after the quarantine ended on Election Day, Mr. Gawiser said his first reaction was, “Hey guys, either there’s a big Democratic wave or we’ve got a big problem with these exit polls.”

“I wasn’t sure which,” Mr. Gawiser said. “You look at Pennsylvania and we never expected an 18-point spread.”

The reaction to the early exit-poll data varied from news organization to news organization and reflects how skittish executives have become after reporting incorrect projections in past races. In 2002, the data was “totally ignored” because it had become apparent there were major flaws, said CNN Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman.

Fox News Channel election-night analyst Michael Barone told viewers the numbers were “unreliable.” Two days later, Thom Byrd, the executive producer of news specials and events for Fox, conceded only that “there were some concerns early on” about the numbers.

On election night, CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein told The New York Times the early numbers had to be discounted.

Mr. Bohrman was quick to say that only 1,000 voters nationwide are questioned for NEP’s exit polls, which means that the information should be only one of the factors on which projections are based.

“It’s like a complex recipe for stew,” he said.