Thursday, November 09, 2006

Exit-Poll Secrecy Measures Aim to Plug Leaks to Blogs

Exit-Poll Secrecy Measures
Aim to Plug Leaks to Blogs
November 7, 2006; Page B1

Two-by-two, polling specialists from ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News and the Associated Press will go into rooms in New York and Washington shortly before noon Tuesday. Their cellphones and BlackBerrys will be confiscated; proctors will monitor the doors; and for the next five hours, these experts will pore over exit-poll data from across the country.

If all goes well, only when they emerge from their cloisters will the legions of ravenous political bloggers have any chance of getting their hands on the earliest indication of which party will end up controlling Congress.

"The demand for info is intense, and if the safeguards aren't steel doors bolting people inside a room, it will get out," says Marc Ambinder, associate editor of National Journal's Hotline OnCall. "The insatiable appetite for this info will overwhelm the ability to keep it secret."

The extraordinary security is a result of mix-ups that prompted grumbling about the accuracy of exit polls after the 2004 presidential election: Bloggers posted data from early exit polls, incorrectly calling some states for Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry and indicating that he would unseat President Bush.

This year, media executives figure the secret will keep less than half an hour. "Based on past experience, I expect that I'll have exit-poll data soon after it's released from multiple sources," Taegan Goddard of the newsy independent blog Political Wire says in an email.

Exit polls will be available for all the key Senate races, giving an early picture of whether it could flip to the Democrats. House races won't be available, although clues in statewide data for states with lots of close races, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut and Indiana, will provide a sense of what the broader outcome might be.

The data are collected through the National Election Pool, a consortium made up of the three traditional networks, CNN, Fox News and the AP. NEP's members decide which questions are asked and set the rules for the data's release.

Only consortium members get all of the data, including state breakdowns. Other media outlets -- but not bloggers or political parties -- may purchase the data, on a sliding cost scale. A state report can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $5,400, depending on the size of the news organization. A week after the election, all of the data can be purchased by academics, political parties and others for $10,000.

News organizations use exit polls to give them an early sense of the electorate's mood to shape and guide coverage later that night when the real results come in. As the data become more complete throughout the day, NEP and news organizations use them to project winners when the polls close. TV news anchors know the results, but are honor-bound not to disclose them until the polls close in the individual states. Sometimes, however, they can't resist alluding to some results with broad statements about the mood of the electorate.

Poll results are for internal use for the most part, but are generally the worst-kept secret in the news business. On Election Day, exit polls are the coin of the realm in Washington, and some reporters and editors can't resist sharing top-line data among themselves and with political operatives. Consequently, the information can reach bloggers from any number of sources.

Mainstream news organizations know that bloggers will eventually get their hands on the exit-poll data, but their goal is to delay it as long as possible because the accuracy of the data improves as the day goes on.

In previous years, numbers were made available to the news organizations in waves via secure Web sites. In 2004, the first wave of data went out around 2 p.m. and quickly leaked onto the Internet. That's what brought about this year's sequestering of the news organization's representatives. The only communication they'll be allowed to make out of the so-called quarantine rooms before 5 p.m. will be to warn their new organizations about potential problems in the data. (In 2000, faulty polling prompted some networks to incorrectly call Florida in favor of Al Gore.) Those messages will be monitored by representatives of the polling firm NEP has contracted with.

Consequently, for much of Tuesday, bloggers will likely be chattering mostly about secondary issues, such as voter turnout and problems with new electronic voting machines.

But at 5 p.m., waves of exit-poll data will begin flowing to newsrooms via limited-access Web sites. For the bloggers, the scramble will be on to get the data first, hoping for an email from a friendly source.

"People need to realize those numbers aren't the real results," says David Bohrman, vice president of news and production at CNN's Washington bureau, who urges people to be cautious when interpreting poll results. "They show why people voted today, and what was on their minds. The only real way to figure out who won is to count the votes."

Mark Blumenthal, a Democratic pollster known as the "Mystery Pollster" on, which tries to explain the mechanics behind polls, agrees. Exit polls are "still a sample," he says. "Don't get all excited about it." In 2004, Mr. Blumenthal posted a warning in the morning about the vagaries of exit polling data and says he'll post another Tuesday. "You learn the hard way that a one- or two-point lead on a leaked exit poll is meaningless," he says.

Mr. Ambinder of Hotline OnCall, the free, wonky blog updated by National Journal's political reporters, says editors there have vowed not to post any exiting-polling data. They say that the less they post while polls are open the better. "If a header in my inbox says 'exit poll,' I'm going to try to resist the temptation to open it," he says.

Throughout the day, a lot of unreliable numbers on exit polling will be flying around in emails, predicts Jacob Weisberg, editor of online magazine Slate, which published early exit-polling data in 2004. If Slate receives exit-polling data from a reliable source in the media it will publish them again, Mr. Weisberg says, although he doesn't know if they'll be very meaningful. "When elections are really close, exit polls aren't that reliable."

"I'll post it with the caveat that it was all crap last time and will probably be crap again," says Glenn Reynolds of, a conservative-leaning blog, who will be doing interviews for CNN via a Webcam from his Knoxville, Tenn., home.

Unreliable or not, for many bloggers exit polls are just too juicy to ignore. "Basically, yeah, we'll run everything we get the second we get it," says Alex Pareene of the irreverent Washington blog Wonkette. "Give the people what they want."

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home