Learn from the costly lessons of 2004
Four years ago a lot of punters lost a lot of money by reading too much into the leaks and then the official exit polls themselves. This is a note that has been issued by John McCain’s head of polling – Bill McInturff – which I am reproducing in full.
For the record I have decided not to bet at all today. In 2004 I came close to losing a small fortune when the markets swung sharply when the first exit poll leaks came through and I got carried away. Fortunately I managed to lay the entire Kerry position in time and came out even – but the world had to endure four more years of George Bush!
Subject: Reading the Exit Polls
Date: November 3, 2008
As we have seen in previous election cycles, the exit poll results do leak early and that ends up influencing the coverage of the race before even the first state polls close at 6:00 PM Eastern.
However, we want to remind the campaign that the media’s own post-election study of the exit polls in 2004 showed that the exit polls overstate the Democratic candidate’s support. Therefore, we would discourage a rush to judgment based on the exit polls and wait until there has been a representative sampling of actual tabulated results from a variety of counties and precincts in a state.
Here are the key points to keep in mind when the exit poll data starts being leaked:
1. Historically, exit polls have tended to overstate the Democratic vote.
2. The exit polls are likely to overstate the Obama vote because Obama voters are more likely to participate in the exit poll.
3. The exit polls have tended to skew most Democratic in years where there is high turnout and high vote interest like in 1992 and 2004.
4. It is not just the national exit poll that skews Democratic, but each of the state exit polls also suffers from the same Democratic leanings.
5. The results of the exit polls are also influenced by the demographics of the voters who conduct the exit polls.
After the 2004 election, the National Election Pool completed a study investigating why the exit polls that year showed John Kerry over performing 5.5 net points better than the actual results showed him to have done. Their conclusion was that the primary reason the exit polls was that Kerry voters and Democrats were more likely to participate in the exit polls.
“Our investigation of the differences between the exit poll estimates and the actual vote count point to one primary reason: in a number of precincts a higher than average Within Precinct Error most likely due to Kerry voters participating in the exit polls at a higher rate than Bush voters. There has been partisan overstatements in previous elections, more often overstating the Democrat, but occasionally overstating the Republican.
We believe that this will hold true this year. The recent Fox News survey showed that 46% of Obama voters said they were very likely to participate in the exit polls, while just 35% of McCain supporters are.
In fact, even the 2004 exit poll report noted that higher turnout nationally and higher levels of voter interest in both 1992 and 2004 correlated with greater Within Precinct Error.
The overstating of the Democratic vote did not only occur in the national exit polls, but also occurred in the state exit polls. The 2004 exit poll report cited that the Kerry vote was overstated by more than one standard error in 26 states, while the Bush vote was overstated in just four states. So we should also expect the individual state exit polls on Tuesday to be more Democratic as well.
So given that turnout is expected to be even higher than 2004 and that Democrats are more likely to participate in the exit polls, this means we should expect greater fluctuation and variation in the exit polls from the actual election results.
The 2004 exit poll report also showed that the greatest error in the exit poll came in precincts where the interviewer was younger. The completion rates were lower and the refusal rates and Within Precinct Error was higher when the interviewers were under the age of 35. Complicating this is that nearly half the interviewers were under the age of 35, including 35% who were 18-24 and another 15% were 25-34.
Based on the previous exit poll results, we should expect once again that Tuesday’s exit poll data could overstate the Obama vote and under represent the McCain vote.
It is important that the campaign make sure the media realizes this, so that when the exit polls do leak, people do not overreact to the early exit poll data. Rather than looking at the exit polls, we should wait until we start seeing actual election results from key precincts and counties to gauge who won the election.