The problem with polls

Posted: Nov 05, 2002 12:00 AM
Reporters love polls. Doesn’t it seem as if every newspaper story or television news report about an election includes a poll? Even though they’re often wrong, polls are cited repeatedly and authoritatively. That’s why one of the biggest stories on Election Night will be the way the outcomes are predicted and reported, and the renewed importance of journalists getting it right as well as getting it first. During the Presidential election of 2000, all major media outlets had daily tracking polls from Labor Day right through Election Day. Every morning a new snapshot emerged, showing the candidates running neck and neck. There’s no national race this year, of course, but there’s no lack of polls. For example, on Nov. 3, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minneapolis Star Tribune released competing polls about Minnesota’s Senate race. One survey showed Republican candidate Norm Coleman leading Democrat Walter Mondale by six percentage points. The other showed Mondale ahead by five. That’s quite a spread. Most polls take a sample of 500-1000 “likely voters” or “registered voters” and use that to predict how the voting public will vote. However, there’s one type of poll that’s not usually mentioned until after the voting ends on election night -- exit polling. Exit polls draw from the largest sample of actual voters. A group called Voter News Service interviews people as they leave the polls, and uses those interviews to predict who will win. The Associated Press and the five major broadcast news networks – ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX and NBC -- set up VNS, and all agree not to report its results until after all polls close in that state. In other words, news outlets pay to collect information, then embargo it until after a given time. But even exit polls can be wrong, as they were in Florida in 2000. Based on early VNS information, Al Gore should have won that state, and all the networks (but not AP) were calling Florida for Gore shortly after 7 p.m. That’s why the major news outlets are changing their approach this year. They still will rely on VNS, but the service is using different computer models this year. Executive director Ted Savaglio says those models will do a better job of taking into account the effects of absentee voting and early polling. But a bigger change is that the networks are going to start competing with each other again, just as they do with all other news stories. CNN plans to have more than 700 stringers on the ground in key states, phoning in results as soon as they are official. FOX will use a private polling firm to conduct its own voter surveys. ABC News plans to keep in touch with election officials and political campaigns throughout the night. None of the networks plan to share their internal information. By creating a check on the VNS data, all three networks are sure to improve the overall quality of reporting. Of course, the biggest change we’ll notice is that it probably will take longer for the networks to call each race. Since so much of the data will be double-checked, instead of 7 p.m., it might be 9, 10, midnight or later before we know which party will control the House and the Senate. That’s all right, as long as it means the information we eventually get is accurate. The race to be the first network to call an election became pretty pointless when every major news outlet started relying on the exact same information. Unfortunately, being first became more important than being correct, even though being first was simply a matter of which network anchor could speak more quickly. Journalists should be sharing information with us on the air -- not with each other, behind the scenes. Competition makes products better. And this year, it will be good to see competition again in political reporting.