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November 07, 2004

Blaming the Bloggers

One thing that has bothered me about the coverage of the early exit poll snafu on Tuesday is the notion that bloggers were the problem. "Bloggers Said to Blame for Bad Poll Info," read the headline over the AP story in the New York Times, consistently echoing the line from those close to the exit poll process:

  • Joe Lenski, whose Edison Research conducted the NEP exit poll, said: "The basic issue here is the leaking of this information without any sophisticated understanding or analysis."
  • CBS News Polling Director Kathy Frankovic said: "I think people believed [the leaked polls], and it's particularly the case with Internet bloggers."
  • Former CBS News Executive Political Director Martin Plissner wrote: "The problem is not that the exit polls were wrong...the problem was that in the age of the Internet the exit polls were being seen by thousands of people who didn't know how to read them."

The New York Sun headline said it all: "Bloggers Botch Election Call; Networks Cautious, Steady."

It is certainly true that the networks were cautious, steady and ultimately flawless in making their formal projections. But the idea that only bloggers -- as opposed to "sophisticated" journalists -- leapt to wrong conclusions is nonsense.

Hopefully, as a blogger who not only declined to post leaked exit poll numbers but also explicitly forbid readers from sharing leaked data on this site (see note below), I have some credibility on this issue

I spent much of late Tuesday afternoon watching CNN. Here's what I saw. In the 5:00 hour, Lou Dobbs, Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson had this exchange:

BEGALA: If the early projections look like they're true, turnout will be way up this year...I do think -- I am, of course, a Kerry partisan, but I do think it's probably good news for John Kerry. The higher the turnout goes, probably the better it is for the challenger. As one Kerry aide said to me this afternoon, he said, you know, you don't stand in line for 45 minutes to vote for more of the same.

DOBBS: Do you agree with that, Tucker?

CARLSON: Sadly, I do agree with that. I can tell you, Democrats agree with that.

CARLSON: I listened to two well-known Democrats -- I won't tell you their names -- literally involved in a conversation of who was going to be Kerry's White House chief of staff. They are picking the curtains in the White House, which is reason enough in my view to hope they don't win.

The gloating has begun already. But, yes, they definitely think it's good for them. And I think, sadly, they're probably right.

Translation: Carlson and Begala were both convinced by the partial exit polls that heavy turnout meant "good news" for Kerry. In a commercial break, Carlson listened to Begala and James Carville speculating on who Kerry would pick as chief of staff. Presumably, CNN had briefed them on the partial exit poll numbers, and everyone was convinced Kerry would win. Remarkably, on the air, Carlson all but conceded a Bush defeat.

Oh, but Carlson and Begala are not real journalists, you say? Then consider this exchange a few minutes later between Dobbs, Karen Tumulty of Time Magazine and Roger Simon of U.S. News & World Report (the transcript has two parts, one and two). Keep in mind that at the time this segment aired, the national exit poll showed Kerry leading 51% to 48%:

DOBBS: And, Karen, the long lines that we're seeing, conventional wisdom has been that a heavy turnout would favor Senator Kerry. Anything that you want to add to that conventional wisdom?

KAREN TUMULTY, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "TIME": You know, I haven't seen anything that would shake that conventional wisdom today...

ROGER SIMON, POLITICAL EDITOR, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": I agree with Karen. The motivation is that, if you want change, you get out and vote. If you're satisfied with the status quo, you're more likely to stay home, and that probably favors John Kerry

TUMULTY: Yes, I am feeling more so than I was a day or two ago confident that we, in fact, may know the winner by the time we go to bed tonight, assuming we go to bed in the wee hours, that is, and, you know, I think that it does appear that this turnout could perhaps create a wave.

DOBBS: Your thoughts, Roger?

ROGER SIMON, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT: The same. I think we'll have a winner. I think he will win 51:48:1. I just don't know which guy will get that, but I think...


SIMON: But I think we will have a clear winner. That win will be magnified in the electoral college. It won't go to the House of Representatives, and we'll know who's president tomorrow morning, and we can all either be angry or be sad or be happy, but breathe a sigh of relief that we know.

Translation: Yesterday we thought things would be close, but now we know it will be blowout.  In fact, we think Kerry is going to win 51% to 48%, with an even bigger electoral college margin because he is leading in all the battleground states. We're even using the actual numbers on the air while still claming we don't know who will win! Aren't we clever? What a hoot!

Some say it was just the talking heads on the networks that fell into this trap. We now know the editors at the nation's most prestigious newspapers -- relying not on leaks but on data received via paid subscription -- acted on the belief Kerry would win. The managing editor of the Washington Post said his paper "had to scramble to make last-minute changes to an article analyzing why voters voted the way they did that was based in part on the poll." An article by Jim Rutenberg said the New York Times also had to pull "an analytical piece about the vote based in part on the Election Day survey" from late editions of the paper.

So my advice to decision makers at the networks is to stop blaming the bloggers. If you put exit poll data into the hands of hundreds of working journalists, it will absolutely, positively proliferate to millions of readers via weblogs. The genie is out of that bottle for good. Blaming bloggers for spreading that information is like blaming fish for swimming.

If the public release of partial exit poll data is too "dangerous" for "amateurs," then think about keeping it under wraps until the polls close. That means sharing it with a very small number of people in a central location and no ability to communicate with the outside world. Impossible? Why not? Somehow, the Academy Awards manages to keep its tabulations secret each year. I am not sure why exit poll data needs to be different, except that powerful people feel entitled to an early peek.

And if true secrecy really is as unworkable as everyone connected with the exit polls keeps telling me it is, then consider making the whole process a lot more transparent. Consider this suggestion from Political Scientisteconomist/blogger Daniel Drezner:

I have a humble request for the nets -- show us how the sausage is made. In other words, instead of hiding the data from the exit polls from us, explain as the returns come in what the polls say and compare and contrast them to the incoming returns.

Crazy? Perhaps, but at least this way the public will have an explicit warning label from the source to go with that oh, so dangerous data.


A note to readers: On Tuesday, I asked you to refrain from posting leaked exit polls on this site. I did so, not because I imagined I could slow their dissemination, but because I thought it hypocritical to criticize the discussion of leaked exit polls while simultaneously facilitating it. When I posted, I unthinkingly left the "trackback" feature on, which allows other blogs to post remote comments and have those comments appear automatically at the bottom of my post. By 6:00 p.m. EST, 36 blogs had linked to the site, and virtually all were posting or commenting on the leaked exit polls. A few even included leaked numbers in the summary blurbs that appeared here. A lesson learned: The very structure of the blogosphere facilitates the dissemination of information. Resistance, as they say on Star Trek, is futile.


Correction:  Daniel Drezner reminds me that he is more Political Scientist than  Economist.  My goof.   

Update:  Jack Shafer's column Friday night covered a lot of the same turf as this post.  So did this piece by the Wall Street Journal's Hanrahan and Fry.  Both are worth reading in full.

Related Entries - Exit Polls

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on November 7, 2004 at 07:23 PM in Exit Polls | Permalink


Mark, have you been able to get someone to send you the final round of exit poll data that was a weighted mix of exit and actual vote data? (Not the cross-tabulated exit polls that can now be found on CNN.com etc, but the round before all of the actual votes were in). Please let us know.

Also, as always thanks for your thoughtful analysis.

Posted by: Sade | Nov 8, 2004 1:23:29 AM

A word in favor of FoxNews' coverage on election night:

Barone was skeptical of the exit polls relatively early, and, as I recall, said so.

Which led to Kondracke saying, let's tell people what we're talking about, with an explicit discussion of the horse race as revealed by the exit polls.

Posted by: Thomas | Nov 8, 2004 11:18:36 AM

The very structure of the blogosphere facilitates the dissemination of information.

No. It facilitates the dissemnination of data. Information and data are not the same. Election day clearly and once again showed that bloggers are pretty worthless when discussing breaking news, and it's sad to see you defend the likes of Wonkette for throwing up raw numbers.

Posted by: Ed Rusch | Nov 8, 2004 12:51:26 PM

Ed must be new here.
Mark, any thoughts on the reason for the disparity b/t the exit polls and the, er, poll polls?

Posted by: Chris D | Nov 8, 2004 2:46:07 PM

"Ed must be new here."

Yes, lord knows you don't want a new reader to join the clique, apparently.

Posted by: Ed Rusch | Nov 8, 2004 4:14:58 PM

Ed, I was refering to your comment, "it's sad to see you defend the likes of Wonkette for throwing up raw numbers." That's not what Mark was doing. He's very much against the use of the raw numbers, and has posted about this several times (hence, "you must be new here.")
There is no clique here (or, if there is, I'm not part of it.)

Posted by: Chris D | Nov 8, 2004 5:09:33 PM

Ed, is there any way to get a hold of the exit poll data for independent analysis, either as an individual or as an institution (eg., Leon Pannetta's organization)? Seems to me that with all the spin going on, a few more eyes looking at the data and slicing it and dicing it might be a great idea...!

Posted by: Camilo Wilson | Nov 8, 2004 7:24:12 PM

Is a 'civil cold war' starting in America?

read why election fraud and voter manipulation is pulling the left over the edge


Posted by: Political Commentator | Nov 9, 2004 7:10:26 AM

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