Are Exit Polls Reliable? There Have Been Some Notable Mishaps

An exit poll involves interviewing groups of voters leaving their polling places for an earlier determination of which presidential nominee is more likely to win the final vote before the official call is made. In contrast to an opinion poll, which determines which candidate a person is planning on voting for, an exit poll surveys people after they've actually committed to the candidate at the voting booth. Exit polls are an attempt to nail down more reliable numbers to predict who the winner will be — but are exit polls reliable?

The short answer: not always. The most egregious time exit polls were wrong and ran away with the spoon was in 2000 when they predicted Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore would win Florida. That exit polling set off a litany of misinformation, which in turn, created a tornado of misleading details surrounding the election results that year.

But the 2000 presidential election isn't the only prominent incident when exit polling failed to be an accurate predictor. In 2004, exit polling from the National Election Pool (NEP) was pretty darn off about John Kerry, predicting that the Massachusetts senator had nabbed key swing states. He hadn't. As Steve Lovelady at the Columbia Journalism Review noted, "The head-to-head results gathered by NEP, like the ones gathered by its predecessor, are about as valuable as a bucket of warm spit."

Exit polling has already been noticeably off during the primary season. Hillary Clinton's lead in the 2016 Democratic primary in New York was significantly underestimated. The early exit polling data predicted she'd win by 4 points, but she won by 16 when the votes were actually counted.

It turns out there's more to an exit poll than just predicting slightly earlier who the winner will be. According to Joe Lenski, executive vice president of Edison Media Research, exit polls are not just predictors of winners; they're meant to inform pollsters about the demographics of voters and break down the analysis of who's voting and why. Lenski told the Washington Post, "The main use of the exit poll... is to have the most accurate representation of the demographics of voters. How each demographic voted, what the issues were, when people decided how to vote."

Perhaps, with Lenski's insight in mind, it would be more important to focus on the valuable data exit polls provide regarding insight into voting preferences and patterns of specific demographics and less on being able to win the race to be the first media outlet to call the winner.