Friday, November 9, 2012
I do think the way CNN (and presumably other networks, but I was mostly watching CNN and don't really know what others were doing) are handling the exit polls is a lot better than the way they used to do it. On CNN at least, as the polls closed in each state, they either called it for a candidate, or showed the exit poll head-to-head estimate.
For one thing, those later exit poll estimates are presumably (I haven't checked) more accurate than the earlier ("leaked") ones. For another, the game where they know and are reporting on those polls while keeping the top-line estimates secret was always both silly and annoying. Because everyone knew that the TV people had information that viewers did not have, it pushed everyone to interpret anything said on TV through that secret knowledge. Which also encouraged everyone to believe, falsely in many cases, that the TV people knew exactly what had happened.
However, what they really should do is to report them as ranges, or confidence intervals, rather than as specific point estimates. Put a good graphic up and I don't really think it would be too confusing for most viewers, and it would be a lot more accurate than what they're giving us. And it works for the networks, too: by emphasizing uncertainty, it presumably makes it more likely that people will stick around. After all, the real idea here is that we the viewers should know what the people on TV know. Giving the specific estimates doesn't really do that; it implies a kind of precision that they don't really believe -- or else they would have called the state already!
Granted, this doesn't solve the problem of keeping the exit polls secret before voting ends in each state. But that's most easily solved by not turning on the TV until Indiana and Kentucky close, or even better not until an hour after that when real returns start coming in. By then, we'll have enough information (via the early calls and the exit polls in the other early-closing states) to know what they know, even if they have aren't going to reveal the exit polls from late-closing states for a while.