Commentary: Time to drop the exit polls

The Kansas City StarNovember 6, 2012 

Next up: exit polls.

OK, we’re all tired. We’ve overdosed on the Real Clear Politics average. Mason-Dixon is more than a line on the map. Ipsos, PPP, Gallup — everybody’s gone survey. Survey USA.

But we only get a few hours off, because even as we’re trying to sort out winners tonight, we’ll all be buried in the post-election avalanche of voter surveys, exit polls and explanations of what the results really mean.

You’ll recognize the drill: Hispanics 70 percent for Obama, maybe, or evangelicals 5-to-1 for Romney. Workers are worried about the deficit, students about jobs. This time next week, we can confidently tell friends how unmarried tea party Catholics in suburban red states not ending in a vowel cast their ballots.

Interestingly, though, the same pundits who warned for weeks of dubious polls will next try to convince us exit poll data are rock solid.

Don’t buy it.

Why should anyone think exit polls will be any more precise than this year’s pre-election polls, which, to put it kindly, were not always congruent?

Recall that in 2004, exit polls famously showed John Kerry beating George W. Bush by about three points. He lost by about that amount, leading experts to conclude the post-voting surveys were seriously flawed (or, some Democrats darkly argued, the outcome was fixed.)

Either way, the bloviating class agreed the exit polls had missed — then immediately began using the polls’ demographic breakdowns as argument for and against policy positions.

Pollsters later insisted the breakout data points had been “calibrated” to more closely resemble the actual vote. Once that was done, they argued, the women-voted-this-way and men-voted-that-way data rang true.

But if we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that polling is an inexact science.

And exit polling could be even more dicey. Exit polls may be getting better at identifying who was picked by voters, but figuring out why has to be less precise: Voters’ motives are often a tangle of reactions to different, sometimes contradictory messages and beliefs that won’t show up in a poll.

When we’re all trying to guess the outcome of the election, it can be fun wading through the information and making a guess. It’s less fun if we try to use off-center, fluctuating exit polls to make public decisions.

In fact, making choices by poll would be a bad idea even if we knew the data were completely right. So here’s a suggestion: Instead of obsessing over the exit polls tonight, let’s all get some needed rest.

That means you too, just-elected officials. You’re going to need your energy for other things in the weeks ahead.

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