Much of the political discourse in the nation’s longest presidential campaign was shaped by a daily deluge of opinion surveys that gauged American sentiment du jour. News coverage often hinged on the few digits that separated Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain.
In the end, were the polls right?
That separation ranged from 1 percentage point to about 10 in recent weeks, according to a spate of polls from news organizations and research groups in the last few months — often deeming Mr. Obama’s lead “comfortable.”
The earliest speculation based on real voting numbers found Mr. Obama with a three-point lead nationwide with the popular vote, a six-point lead in Florida, a 3-point lead in North Carolina. Mr. McCain had a 3-point advantage in Indiana and a 12-point lead in Kentucky.
Interviews with voters suggested that more than half of women backed Mr. Obama; men leaned his way by a narrow margin. Just more than half of whites supported Mr. McCain, giving him a slim advantage in a group that President Bush carried overwhelmingly in 2004, said an Associated Press survey based on a preliminary partial sample of nearly 10,000 voters.
Exit polls and their fall out has worried Mr. McCain’s campaign for months.
Strategist Bill McInturff warned Tuesday that exit polls “could overstate” voter support of Sen. Barack Obama — citing a previous Fox News survey which revealed that 46 percent of Obama fans said they were very likely to participate in the exit polls, compared to 35 percent of McCain supporters.
A contrite press has vowed to be cautious about the siren call of exit polls for years. No one wants a repeat of the 2000 race, when the press pronounced early winners based on faulty exit polls, casting the race into recount. And memories of the midterm two years later haven’t faded either; revamped exit polling from the now defunct Voter News Service also failed.
Since 2004, news organizations have adhered to fact-based methodology established by the National Election Pool — a consortium of broadcasters and the Associated Press, using standards meant to discourage eager journalists from declaring early winners to garner big audiences.
“Individual polls can swing wildly. If you report available the polls, you give people the idea they are fluctuating wildly from one hour to the next. No wonder voters get whiplash,” said Sam Feist, polling director for CNN.
In recent days, the network used a “Poll of Polls” — which averaged numbers from six major daily polls — as a centerpiece of their political coverage.
“That way, you don’t see wild swing. You see trends,” he said.
Exit polls of voters leaving their polling places are a different snapshot all together.
“Unlike the last election, exit poll data was quarantined until late afternoon to prevent leaks of information which may not complete or valid, and is very much open to misinterpretation in news reports,” Mr. Feist said.
The General Election Exit Poll conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International which included over 100,000 interviews at 1,000 polling locations.
The Associated Press — which used 5,000 field correspondents to glean information from voters — made their assessments based on voter turnout, previous voting patterns, exit polling, telephone polls of absentee or early voters, and the “experience of AP journalists who have covered the campaigns,” the wire service said.
“When our analysis indicates a candidate has that significant winning margin, we will call the race at the scheduled poll close hour even if voting has been extended briefly in selected precincts. As always, we do not call races until we are confident of that winning margin, whether at poll close or many hours or days later.”
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