Understanding Exit Polls

Understanding Exit Polls
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots just before early voting closes Monday, March 14, 2016, at the Butler County Board of Elections in Hamilton. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

The term only surfaces a couple of days a year, but on those days it is everywhere: “Exit polls.”

Every election day in the U.S., whether it’s primaries or mid-terms or the presidential election, “exit polls” becomes an incessant buzzword for media and political analysts. In the 2000 election between Al Gore and George Bush, flawed exit poll reporting led news networks to make multiple premature calls about who would win.

But what are they, exactly?

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Think of exit polls as the other half of gauging the voting tendencies of the American public. The first half is opinion polls, in which voters are asked before elections which candidates they prefer, what issues are important to them and other questions.

Those polls are sometimes run by independent organizations, and sometimes run by politically affiliated groups in order to assess the voting landscape. Some of these polls are used to predict the upcoming elections; others are used to adjust campaign strategies.

Exit polls are taken as voters leave their polling places. Pollsters will ask people how they voted. The exit polls are typically run by private companies hired by media outlets in order to get an early idea of who won an election, as ballot-counting can often take hours, or even days, after polls close to determine the winner.

Official vote results are not released until after all of the polls close in a state. If you are watching news coverage with voting data on election day while the polls are still open, you are almost certainly seeing exit polling data. In the 2000 election, some national media outlets had hired people with political affiliations to do the exit polling; experts think this caused the exit polls to be skewed, as people may have been more likely to tell the pollster they voted for the pollster’s candidate. Since that election, national media companies say they have taken extensive steps to make exit polling more reliable.

Exit polls are also used by future campaigns to help understand why voters voted the way they did. In addition to asking who voters voted for, exit pollsters may also ask other demographic information, like income or age. They might also ask what factors the voter considered, or whether the voter is registered to a particular party.

You can click here to learn more about exit polling from the Pew Research Center.